Libertarianism 9: The Meaning of Liberty

This is my latest post in my libertarianism series.  Previous posts can be found here: Post 1, Post 2, Post 3, Post 4, Post 5, Post 6, Post 7, Post 8,


It has been some time since I posted to my blog.  At the end of last Spring I got wrapped up in my research travels and reading, enough so that I put my libertarianism series on the backburner.  This semester I’ve committed myself to writing more regularly.  After several months away I feel some need to reconnect to the trajectory of the ideas I’ve been exploring (Note: in the next paragraph, I’ll link to all previous posts in the series for review).

So a quick review of where we’ve been: early in this series I introduced readers to the nonaggression principle (NAP), the moral principle that is that philosophical starting point for libertarianism.  I proceeded to distinguish two major types of libertarianism: (1) minarchism (a libertarian philosophy that asserts that only a minimalist state can be morally justified) and (2) anarchism (a libertarian philosophy that asserts that no state can be justified). After surveying the work of two thinkers influential in minarchist circles–John Locke and Robert Nozick–I introduced the work of anarcholibertarian Murray Rothbard. In my last blog post I argued that Rothbard’s anarcholibertarianism is a philosophically principled system, but one that points to conclusions so absurd–for example, the conclusion that parents should have no legal obligation to feed their children–that it suggests his theory to be fundamentally flawed.  I concluded my last post by pointing to two possible objections to Rothbard’s argument.  The first is that Rothbard overvalues liberty at the expense of other values that just societies have an obligation to protect–the welfare of children, for example.

While I believe the first criticism offers one possible starting point for responding to Rothbard, it is the second objection that in my view is the more pressing one. As I noted at the conclusion of my last post several months ago,

“The problem with Rothbard is not that he values liberty too much. The problem is that he does not value liberty enough.  How can that be so?  That’s the focus of my next post.”

At first glance this criticism will seem odd.  How is it possible for one to argue that Rothbard, “Mr. Libertarian,” does not value liberty enough? What is liberty, after all? Rothbard argues that I embody a personal commitment to liberty when I refrain from acting aggressively against you. A society founded upon liberty is one in which individuals are free from aggression. But according to Rothbard, states are, by definition, aggressive.  Thus, a commitment to liberty entails that we not simply limit the role that states play.  It entails, rather, that we  eliminate states entirely, replacing them with institutions built on voluntary, consensual exchange.

Instead of focusing on the (im)practicality of Rothbard’s utopian anarchist society, I want to challenge his definition of liberty, which I believe to be fundamentally misguided. Indeed, I believe that Rothbard’s narrow conception of liberty and oversimple caricature of welfare state liberalism points to conclusions that in practice undermine liberty. To get at my critique I invite you to consider a thought experiment. (note:  I’m adapting this from an online example I came across several years ago on the companion website to Michael Sandel’s book, Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?):


Richard Parker is a passenger on a small transoceanic vessel that is making its way across the open sea.  One night Richard is lying asleep in his bunk when he is awakened by the sound of an alarm and shouts of sailors from the ship deck crying out, “Abandon ship! Abandon ship!”  The boat is taking on water quickly. Richard makes his way to the deck just in time to watch the last lifeboat dropped into the water, making its way far from the sinking boat on which he is stranded.  Richard and a few other unfortunate souls are left to fend for themselves. The boat sinks. Richard and his compatriots find themselves adrift and alone, treading water and awaiting rescue.


They wait for days. Pangs of hunger and thirst are interrupted only by stabs of terror as the shipwreck victims observe schools of sharks hovering in the waters beneath them. Richard’s compatriots begin to lose hope, and eventually they disappear beneath the waters. Richard finds himself alone.

Alas! The mast of a ship appears in the distance!  Too weak to cry out, Richard’s terror gives way to relief. As the ship draws near him, Richard observe a skull and crossbones painted across the mainsail. Close enough, a voice calls to Richard from above.

Pirate: Argggh! I am the Dread Pirate Roberts! What brings you into these waters?

Richard: My ship sank!  I haven’t had food or water for days, and my companions have all died. How fortunate am I that you are here!  Won’t you send someone from your crew down to rescue me?  I am too weak to lift myself onto your ship.

Pirate: (pauses) Hmmmm, yes, fortunate indeed you are that I, the Dread Pirate Roberts, am here to rescue you. Let me consult for the moment with my crew.

(The Dread Pirate Roberts retreats to his cabin with a few sailors. After several minutes he returns to the deck and calls out to Richard)

Pirate: We’ve discussed your request, and we have agreed to rescue you.

Richard: Hurrah! I am saved!

Pirate: But before doing so, we have a request of our own. We are interested in an exchange of sorts.  You see, pirates have needs too, and it so happens that we need a new cabin boy. We make this offer to you: we will agree to rescue you from your fate on the open ocean.  In exchange you must agree to become our new cabin boy forever.  As our cabin boy you will be entitled to a portion of all future plunder.  You will eat at our common table.  You will get to enjoy life at sea with me, the Dread Pirate Roberts. But your contract with us, the exchange you must agree to, is that you will be our cabin boy in perpetuity.  What say you?

Richard: Did you say I must become your cabin boy forever?

Pirate: Yes.  That’s what “in perpetuity” means.  Now, what say you? Shall we pluck you from these dark waters?

Richard: That’s a might steep price to pay. I just need you to lower someone down to lift me onto your boat.  I’m happy to serve you until we get to the next port.  How about we agree to that?

Pirate: (Laughing) No, that’s not our offer. You see anyone else out here in a position to rescue you? It’s the law of supply and demand, my friend.  The demand for rescue is high, and the supply of rescuers is low.  But the decision is yours, of course. Our offer stands. Take it or leave it.  We will rescue you.  In return you must become our ship’s cabin boy, forever.



Consider for the moment Richard Parker’s plight from the anarcholibertarian perspective. According to Rothbard, I show that I value liberty when I refrain from acting aggressively. Rothbard would undoubtedly object were the Dread Pirate Roberts to coerce Richard to become the ship’s cabin boy.  To threaten Richard with lethal violence would be an act of aggression, an injustice that undermines his liberty.  Notice, however, that in the scenario above the Dread Pirate is not coercing Richard.  He is simply considering the “market conditions,” so to speak, making Richard an offer and inviting him to choose whether or not to enter into an exchange of benefits–his rescue for a lifetime of servitude. There is no coercion here. This is a simple market exchange that either party can take or leave.

But here is the problem: while it may well be the case that the Dread Pirate Roberts is simply seeking a price that the market can bear, it seems nonsensical to say that when Richard Parker agrees to this exchange that he is acting freely. Richard’s choices are either (1) to be rescued and become the ship’s cabin boy or (2) to face imminent death on the open ocean. His choice is constrained by his desperation. For Richard the offer of the Dread Pirate Roberts is truly an offer that he cannot refuse. The fact that the threat of death is coming from his vulnerable circumstance rather than from a pirate wielding a blunderbuss doesn’t make the peril any less imminent. For Richard Parker, the liberty that anarcholibertarianism promises him is empty, form without substance.

This thought experiment illustrates what I mean when I say that libertarians like Rothbard do not value liberty enough. To stand against aggression is a good thing, but by itself this commitment does not sufficiently protect what philosopher John Rawls calls “the equal worth of liberty.” The inequalities of the current market make Richard’s choice less than free. The liberty that Rothbard protects is the liberty of those who already have power, the Dread Pirate Roberts and his lusty pirates. It is not the liberty of the Richard Parkers of the world, men and women whose opportunities are constrained by circumstances beyond their control. To truly value liberty entails not simply that the Dread Pirate avoid acting aggressively against Richard.  It also entails that the Dread Pirate attend to the conditions that put Richard Parker in a circumstance where he must choose between his life and a lifetime of servitude. 

This argument suggests an alternative way to understand the relationship between liberty and the state.  Rothbard sees states as little more than illegitimate agents of coercion, regulating free exchanges of market actors, redistributing wealth, and imposing burdens that undermine individual liberty. This caricature of state action overlooks the manner in which states can function to enhance liberty by attending to those inequalities that create substantial obstacles for society’s most vulnerable members. As Christian ethicist John Bennett observe in his 1958 book Christians and the State, 

“Instead of looking upon the state only as an enemy of freedom, it is more accurate to see the state as in many situations the best protection of freedom, especially the freedom of the economically weak…. The state is an instrument of freedom for those who are the victims of circumstance, of the impersonal economic forces that may throw them out of work, of the power of employers unless their right to collective bargaining is protected, of all kinds of injury incidental to employment unless the law of the state provides some means of redress. The abstract individualism of the market combined with the abstract individualism of the law turned out in practice to favor the rights and the welfare of the strong and it was the state alone that could chance that tendency.” (119-120)


Undoubtedly, Rothbard and those contemporary libertarians drawn to his version of libertarian thought will find such a definition of liberty too capacious.  David Gordon, Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute, challenges such an expansive definition of liberty. Libertarian freedom, says Gordon, has always meant “freedom from coercion, freedom from the arbitrary power of other men, release from the ties which left the individual no choice but obedience to the orders of a superior to whom he was attached.” Gordon faults those who redefine freedom as a freedom from “the despotism of physical want.” In his view such a definition is “merely another name for power or wealth.” In reply, one might say to Gordon, “Yes, that is true. True liberty does require that people have the power and/or wealth to make reasonable choices about their lives. Why would acknowledging us much be a bad thing?”


Notably, my non-libertarian assessment of Rothbard parallels the insight of some libertarians who have begun questioning the narrow focus on negative liberty that typifies modern libertarianism. Jerry Taylor, formerly a staff member at the Cato Institute and current director of the Niskanen Center, argues for a more moderate libertarian posture that rejects purist ideology, embracing free markets within a community that ensures a robust safety net for the poor.  Contrary to claims that welfare-state policies undermine liberty, Taylor argues that such policies when organized efficiently and effectively are entirely compatible with libertarian principle.  “It should be fairly obvious,” says Taylor, “that one’s freedom is enhanced when one has the resources to act freely. We increase the amount of freedom in this country when we eliminate the greatest obstacle to living freely: poverty.” Taylor and his Niskanen Center collaborators offer a creative middle ground that points us beyond the tired free market/interventionist state dichotomy that has framed conversations between libertarians and their intellectual foes.





Libertarianism 8: The Trouble With Children

Libertarianism and Self-Ownership

Today I’m going to talk about children. What does a post about children have to do with libertarian philosophy? As I hope to show here, children pose a special problem for libertarians (and, more broadly, for other liberalisms). Murray Rothbard’s discussion of children’s rights in his book The Ethics of Liberty well illustrates the problem (Note: page references to Rothbard’s book will be cited parenthetically) .  The conclusions that Rothbard points us to–conclusions that he argues are the necessary, inevitable consequences of embracing libertarianism–border on the absurd.  They may even cross that border, as I hope to convince you. The absurd conclusions that Rothbard defends grate against some of our deep intuitions about children, enough so that in my view they point to some deeper problems in the libertarian theory he espouses.

To get at the problem that children pose, we need to have in front of us the simple, elegant logic of Rothbard’s libertarian ethic, stated as follows:

  • Every person has a natural right to their own body.
  • Every person has a natural right to the fruit of their labor.  

These rights are inalienable. For libertarians, self-ownership is the essential principle upon which a just society is founded. One can just as well frame these principles negatively, a statement of what justice prohibits:

  • No person has a right to use another person’s body against their will.
  • No person has a right to take the fruit of another’s labor without their consent.

Thus, an ethic of liberty places limits on what we can rightfully do to one another. It is strictly negative. Law serves a legitimate role in preserving the space wherein individuals can make choices about their lives.  Law also properly constrains individuals from infringing on individual property rights.


Furthermore–and this is key for where my argument is going–an ethic of liberty does not entail that there are any positive, legally-enforceable obligations that I have to anyone else, apart from those obligations I incur through my explicit consent. You might desperately need a kidney, and I might have a spare that could fulfill this need, but the kidney is rightfully mine, and your need for my kidney does not give you a right to it.  The fact that you need financial assistance to feed your family is regrettable, but my property is my own, and your need does not change this fact.  It might be morally laudable were I to give to a charity that assists families like yours. My charity is an extension of my self-ownership, simply another choice that I have a right to make but that no other person can demand from me. It would be reprehensible for you or the state to force me to do so without my consent.  To do so violates my liberty.

On their face, these libertarian principles are both plausible and compelling.  Consider your own life.  Were somebody to threaten you with a gun and force you to work for them, would you not feel that you have been done a grave injustice?  When you labor at a full-time job for an hourly wage, do you not feel that the money is rightfully yours? Self-ownership seems morally basic to us. Libertarians like Rothbard are unbending in their commitment to the principle of self-ownership.  My body and my property belong to me.  Your body and your property belong to you. I can consent to give you my property as a gift, or I can consent to enter into an agreement with you for us to exchange our property with one another.  But–and this is key–no person has the right to force me to do anything with my body or my property without my consent.

Letting Your Child Die: Your Legal Right

But what about children? Rothbard argues that the principle of self ownership is founded on the fact that adult humans have the rational capacity to choose from among the multiple ends available to them. But newborn children do not (yet) have this capacity. They are not self-owners in the sense that Rothbard describes; they are only potential self-owners (97). What does an ethic of liberty suggest, then, about the rights of children? How do these rights relate to the inalienable right of self-ownership that Rothbard asserts is the cornerstone of an ethic of liberty?

To his credit, Rothbard acknowledges the special challenge that children pose to his argument, devoting an entire chapter in The Ethics of Liberty to the problem. Beginning with the principle of self-ownership, Rothbard first discusses how his ethic speaks to the question of abortion. Rothbard concludes that a woman’s right to her own body entails a consequent right to choose abortion:

“The proper groundwork for analysis of abortion is in every man’s absolute right of self-ownership. This implies immediately that every woman has the absolute right to her own body, that she has the absolute dominion over her body and everything within it. This includes the fetus.  Most fetuses are in the mother’s womb because the mother consents to this situation, but the fetus is there by the mother’s freely-granted consent.  But should the mother decide that she does not want the fetus there any longer, then the fetus becomes a parasitic ‘invader’ of her person, and the mother has the perfect right to expel this invader from her domain.  Abortion should be looked upon, not as ‘murder’ of a living person, but as the expulsion of an unwanted invader from the mother’s body. Any laws restricting or prohibiting abortion are therefore invasions of the rights of mothers” (98).

Rothbard’s conclusion will be discomforting to anti-abortion critics, but it’s not hard to see how his conclusion is the logical extension of the argument for self-ownership. Remember, if my body is my own, then the fact that any other being needs my body does not give them a right to it. The abortion debate often revolves around disagreements about the moral status of embryonic human life.  Notice that Rothbard’s argument completely sidesteps the question of whether a fetus is a person.  From his vantage point the question is irrelevant.  Even if the fetus is a person the fact that the fetus needs the body of the mother does not give the fetus a right to it. The mother has made no explicit contract with the fetus (how could she? The fetus is not a rational agent capable of choosing ends), and even if the fetus is conceived through consensual sexual activity this fact does not mitigate the right of the woman to her own body. If I consent to give you my shiny Lexus sport car but then change my mind, this is my right, and I don’t violate your rights when I reassert my property claim.  The same holds for a pregnant woman. The mother’s right to self-ownership is inalienable.

At first glance, then, Rothbard’s libertarianism seems reasonable, corresponding to a commonly held, albeit contested, view in the abortion debate.  But when we move beyond debates about embryonic human life to discussions about children that have already been born, Rothbard’s argument devolves into absurdity. Let me try to make this point more clearly by using a far-fetched illustration. At birth infants are squalling bundles of neediness. Imagine for the moment that scientists have invented an Infant-Speak Translation System (ISTS), a machine-learning style robot that when placed in a room with an infant learns how to interpret the cries and facial expressions of the child, translating them into verbal language. Over time as the ISTS learns how to translate the cries, laughs, and groans of the infant to the parent the ISTS also makes it possible for the parent to communicate with the child, translating the complex verbal expressions of the parent into nonverbal cues that the child can easily grasp.  Thus, the ISTS makes it possible for parents to carry on verbal conversations with their young infants.


Todd is father to a newborn infant, Claire.  One morning Todd is awakened by the cries of his daughter.  He enters Claire’s nursery, and with the ISTS translating their messages back and forth, they begin a conversation.

Claire (Crying): “Dad, I’m really hungry.  I’ve been lying in this crib all night. Can you get me some baby formula?”

Todd: “Goodness, Claire, you need food again? The fact is, Claire, I’ve grown weary of the sleepless nights you inflict on me, your constant nagging for attention, your never-ending demand for more food.  I find your neediness to be an unbearable burden.  Furthermore, I hold self-ownership to be an inalienable right and the foundation of a just society (I know you’re too young to have heard of Murray Rothbard.  If you live long enough to learn how to read you should really check him out).  I own myself, and your constant demands infringe on my right to choose my own ends.  It’s really sad that you aren’t able to take care of yourself, but the fact that you need my attention, my food, and my care doesn’t give you a right to these things!”

Claire (Crying): “Okay dad, but I still need some formula, and if you don’t respond to me soon you know I’m going to starve to death, right?  Are you trying to kill me? If you don’t feed me aren’t you afraid you’ll get in trouble?”

Todd: “Look, I’m not going to kill you. It would be wrong for me to take active steps to end your life. I’m fundamentally opposed to aggression.  But just because it would be wrong to take steps to kill you does not mean that I have any legal obligation to take positive steps to sustain you. Why should I be afraid of punishment?  If you starve to death simply because I choose to assert my right to self ownership, what right do other people have to say that I should be punished? It would be wrong for anyone to punish me! I haven’t violated anyone’s rights. I’ve simply asserted my own inalienable right to what is mine.”

Claire (Crying): “Okay, dad. Now, about that formula?”

The conversation illustrates the challenge that children raise for an ethic that gives primacy to self-ownership.  This ethic suggests that no individual has a positive, legally enforceable obligation to other persons. But if this is so, then it suggests that Todd’s reply to Claire is exactly correct.  Claire, whose life at the moment is defined not by her capacity to choose ends but by her neediness, has no rightful claim to make on Todd.  For her to insist that he feed her without his consent is just another infringement of his right to self-ownership.

The conclusion seems absurd and disturbing, right? The implication is that Claire is asking of her father something that she has no natural right to expect.  As intuitively implausible as it might seem, this is precisely the conclusion that Rothbard points us to. Says Rothbard,

“[E]very baby, as soon as it is born and is therefore no longer contained within his mother’s body, possesses the right of self-ownership by virtue of being a separate entity and a potential adult. It must therefore be illegal and a violation of the child’s rights for a parent to aggress against his person by mutilating, torturing, murdering him, etc. On the other hand, the very concept of ‘rights’ is a ‘negative’ one, demarcating the areas of a person’s action that no man may properly interfere with. No man can therefore have a ‘right’ to compel someone to do a positive act, for in that case the compulsion violates the right of person or property of the individual being coerced….

“Applying our theory to parents and children, this means that a parent does not have a right to aggress against his children, but also that the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights.  The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die. The law, therefore, may not properly compel the parent to feed a child or to keep it alive” (100).

Rothbard goes on to argue that while we might well deem allowing a child to starve to death an immoral action this conclusion does not entail that we make feeding the child a legally enforceable requirement.  In context, it seems that Rothbard has in mind circumstances when a child is suffering from a severe disability. In his view parents should have the legal right to allow the child to die.  But his argument for self-ownership offers no clear justification for denying this same right to parents who simply find themselves too burdened to continue caring for their child.  If Todd grows weary of Claire’s cries, Rothbard’s conclusion seems clear: Todd should have the legal right to allow Claire to starve to death.  It would be a violation of Todd’s rights for the state to intervene and punish him for allowing Claire to die.

The absurdity of Rothbard’s argument will be made even clearer if one considers what it implies in a range of scenarios.  Consider the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1: Weary of caring for Claire any longer, Todd takes his infant daughter and drowns her in a bathtub.

Scenario 2: Weary of caring for Claire, Todd happens upon his infant daughter who has slipped in the bathtub and lies submerged under the water, unable to raise her head.  Todd allows her to drown.


What should we say of Todd’s actions?  Scenario 1 seems a clear example of aggression.  Todd is taking action so as to cause the death of Claire.  He is acting immorally, and by Rothbard’s standard he is legally culpable for violating Claire’s right to self-ownership.  But what about scenario 2?  Notice that in this case Todd is not actively causing Claire’s death.  Her imminent death is a byproduct of circumstance.  Todd is a bystander, and when he chooses to not rescue his daughter he is simply asserting his own right to choose his own ends.  Outside parties (e.g. the state) would act unjustly were they to discover what happened and subject Todd to punishment.  We might frown upon Todd’s refusal to save Claire, but in scenario 2 our moral judgment does not offer any basis for holding Todd legally culpable for Claire’s death.

Or consider two more scenarios:

Scenario 3: Weary of caring for Claire any longer, on a cold winter day Todd takes his daughter from his house and throws her into a snow drift where she freezes to death.

Scenario 4: Weary of caring for Claire, Todd discovers that his daughter has crawled out of the house and now finds herself shivering, stuck in snow bank from which she cannot extricate herself. Todd stands at his door and watches her freeze to death.


Here again, Rothbard’s argument would suggest that scenario 3 qualifies as an act of aggression because Todd is acting so as to cause the death of his daughter Claire.  But scenario 4 is different.  Claire is freezing to death not because Todd forced her into the cold, but because she left the house.  Todd is simply a bystander asserting his right to self-ownership. And according to Rothbard this should be his legal right. 

Now to be clear, Rothbard is not arguing that parents should allow their children to die. No doubt libertarians like Rothbard would deem child starvation an immoral act, though a legally permissible one. Libertarians are keenly resistant to using law as a basis for enforcing moral norms, but Rothbard’s anarchist utopia still needs some way to address Todd’s neglect. Because there is no state available to enforce law, what would happen when Todd’s neighbors discover Claire’s emaciated corpse in the crib? Though Rothbard does not directly answer this question, here’s my best sense of what Rothbard envisions:

  •  After Claire dies of starvation, Todd’s neighbors, who in an anarchist utopia will enter into voluntary restrictive covenant with one another that regulates their community, would hire a firm to investigate the circumstances of Claire’s death. These agents would be responsible for determining whether or not Claire’s death resulted from Todd’s aggression or some other event.
  • If the investigators discover that Todd did not act aggressively but simply allowed Claire to starve to death, there would be no legal basis for punishing Todd retributively.  Retributive justice is appropriate only in circumstances when an individual violates the rights of another person.  But Todd has not done this; he has simply asserted his own self-ownership rights. Thus, the investigators would inform Todd’s neighbors that the circumstances do not warrant legal punishment.
  • However, the fact that Todd is not legally culpable does not mean that he will escape the consequences of his immoral action.  When his neighbors discover that he allowed his child to starve to death, they will point out to Todd that the voluntary contract he entered into with his neighbors prohibits immoral acts like starving children (moral prohibitions are enforceable contractually as long as individuals consent to them when they contract with their neighbors). Because Todd has violated the terms of his homeowners agreement, he will suffer the very grave consequences of his violation: excommunication from the community.  Todd will live as an exile, a fitting end for a parent who allows his child to die.

In short, while Todd might escape legal sanction, he is still subject to the voluntary commitments he has made to his neighbors and will suffer the consequences of violating his homeowner’s contract.  In an anarchist utopia, their moral sanction is the best that a squalling bundle of neediness can hope for.

Alas, how much easier the world would be if children didn’t infringe so regularly on one’s right to self ownership.

Don’t Want Your Child? Sell Her to the Highest Bidder

There is one more absurdity that deserves mention.  Rothbard argues that up until the point that Claire becomes a rational being capable of asserting her own ends that her parents are “trustee-owners” of her.  Claire has an “absolute right to run away” from home,” and when she asserts this right this signals an end to the parents trustee jurisdiction (103).  Prior to this time, parental ownership of the child entails a right to sell ownership to others.  Yes, according to Rothbard a free society should permit parents to sell their children on a vast babyselling market:

“Now if a parent may own his child (within the framework of non-aggression and runaway-freedom), then he may also transfer that ownership to someone else.  He may give the child out for adoption, or he may sell the rights to the child in a voluntary contract. In short, we must face the fact that the purely free society will have a flourishing free market in children. Superficially, this sounds monsterous and inhuman. But closer thought will reveal the superior humanism of such a market. For we must realize that there is a market for children how, but that since the government prohibits sale of children at a price, the parents may now only give their children away to a licensed adoption agency free of charge” (103-104).

Rothbard asserts that because parents are prohibited from selling their children a gap exists between the demand for adoption (which is great) and the supply of children (which cannot meet this demand).  Allowing parents to sell unwanted children would balance supply and demand (i.e. by creating incentives for parents who do not want children to sell them to those who do). Here as elsewhere, free markets are the solution to our social woes.

And consider the social benefits that attend the commodification of children!  In a society that permits parents to sell children to the highest bidder, poorer families struggling to sustain themselves will have available to them a new avenue for improving themselves. If we’re open to selling those unwanted infants who already exist, why stop there? A free society would surely permit women to bear children for the purpose of selling.  How could it be otherwise?


I find Rothbard’s conclusion philosophically principled.  If self-ownership is the sole foundation of a social ethic, then Rothbard’s logical conclusion seems inescapable. At the same time, I find Rothbard’s conclusion patently absurd.  Admittedly, this could be because my moral intuitions about children’s rights, the social obligations that communities have to protect the vulnerable, and the corrupting effects of treating children as market commodities are grating against the conclusions that Rothbard insists I should embrace.  Beckoning back to my last post on reflective equilibrium, perhaps my intuitions need to change.

But I think not.  In the end, Rothbard’s argument is open to two fundamental objections.  The first is that Rothbard prioritizes liberty at the expense of other moral values that are no less important to a just society.  Self-ownership is a critical moral value, but so is child welfare, or so I would argue. In lifting up self-ownership as the Summum bonum of a just society, Rothbard’s ethic of liberty relies on what can be charitably described as a distorted view of human nature and community. In his book Politics & Passion, Michael Walzer observes that the “hero” of liberal theory, the unencumbered self whose identity is defined wholly by the choices that (s)he makes, is a sociologically naive creation that encourages the pursuit of a “bad utopianism” (P&P, 1). Crusoe, that man on Rothbard’s island, epitomizes the illusion. Suffering from amnesia and unburdened by social connections of any kind, Crusoe is free to map his destiny. With Crusoe as the standard-bearer for an ethic of liberty, we journey toward a future in which parental neglect is legally permissible while morally reprehensible and where children may function as commodities for trade. Bad utopianism indeed.

Our lives are not this way. The trouble with children–and we were all children once–is that they are so needy, so dependent, and so inextricably connected to those “involuntary associations” they had no hand in choosing. Our families, the cultural and (yes) the political communities in which we are born shape our affections and our loyalties, and they also serve as the basis for the positive obligations that we have to one another. Rothbard’s ethic of liberty falls short in accounting for how the enforcement of these positive obligations might well be within the purview of the state, especially when addressing the welfare of the community’s most vulnerable members.

While some might fault Rothbard’s ethic of liberty for prioritizing liberty too much, I actually think the second criticism is more accurate and more pressing.  The problem with Rothbard is not that he values liberty too much. The problem is that he does not value liberty enough.  How can that be so?  That’s the focus of my next post.









Libertarianism 7: Reflective Equilibrium–a sidebar on thinking about ethics

I began Christian Ethics Bites several years ago for practical reasons.  My professional life at my university had come to revolve around teaching and administration, work that while important  had come to crowd out my own research and writing.  I wanted to create something that would allow me to write regularly about the ideas that interest me.

Moreover, my vision for Christian Ethics Bites has always been to make my writing interesting and intelligible to people who do not spend their lives in academia.  The audience I envision here includes people like my wife, my mom and dad, and my undergraduate students–capable and intelligent people whose only disadvantage (and is it a disadvantage, really?) is that they have not spent as much time as me suffering through dense, poorly written academic texts. I tell my students that if they spend enough time at university they too can learn to write as poorly as their professors. I want everyday people to be able to read what I write here, and even if they don’t agree with my conclusions I want them to leave saying that they understand what I’ve said.  Some posts have hit this mark closer than others. Steven Pinker’s book The Sense of Style looms large for me as I think about what I aspire to in my writing.

Over the last few months I’ve been blogging about libertarianism. Looking back over my posts in this series, I think that some of my posts do a better job than others of conveying essential features of libertarian thought for everyday readers.  The first post in the series is pretty good in this regard. I now see that the post on John Locke is too dense. I know this is true; my wife’s eyes glazed over as I was reading it to her, a sure sign that my writing fell short. Writing well is a challenge.  It’s easier to write poorly.

Today I know that what I’m about to do runs the risk of losing some of my audience.  I began writing this post last week, fully intending to focus my attention digging more deeply into the anarcholibertarian theory I introduced in my previous blog post.  As I got further into writing, however, I couldn’t shake this feeling that this series would benefit if I would step back from the details of libertarian thought to focus more generally on methodology, how I think about ethics. A lot of what I’m about to say is going to sound completely disconnected from libertarianism, so bear with me. I promise there is a payoff in the conclusion.

Here it goes. At the risk of losing you, my reader, in paragraph 5, let me first identify the abstract concept I’m about to describe: reflective equilibrium. What is reflective equilibrium?  That’s the focus of today’s post. Popularized by the American philosopher John Rawls in his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, reflective equilibrium is a model that describes how to think about ethics. It’s not the only possible way to think about ethics, nor is it a model that every ethicist finds helpful.  Nonetheless, it is a model that I have found helpful in making sense of what I am striving for when I teach students in my ethics classroom.

To get at what reflective equilibrium is, I’m going to tell you a story.  It’s a short story.  I want you to read the story.  Pay careful attention to your reaction to the characters in the story.  Here it goes:

“Todd raped the 5 year old child repeatedly during the night.  As morning approached, Todd killed the child, mutilating the corpse before burying it in his backyard.”

The end.

This story is horrific, isn’t it? What happened to you when you first read it?  I was reluctant to even tell the story. Even without the details of Todd’s violence, the story seems grotesque and graphic. Todd’s actions are morally repugnant, or so I feel that they are.  What about you?  Doesn’t your gut tell you that what Todd has done is gravely wrong? You read the story and there is very little thought involved; something simply feels wrong about Todd’s action.

In ethics, these gut-level moral responses that we have are called moral intuitions.  These intuitive responses to moral situations  are a vital element of our moral identities. Sometimes these intuitions can be quite powerful.  My gut speaks very strongly to me that raping, killing, and mutilating a child is morally wrong.  Doesn’t yours? Moral intuitions are essential to our moral identity because very often–most of the time, in fact, if moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt is correct–our “gut” is what prompts our moral actions. Driven by our moral intuitions, we are like giant elephants making our way through the world. While we might believe that reason guides our moral lives, our heads are little more than a rider on the elephant.  The rider will try to steer the elephant, but in the end the elephant will do what the elephant does, at least most of the time.


But this begs a question: if moral intuitions are the primary forces guiding our moral action, why spend any time engaging in rational reflection about morality? What’s the point of thinking about ethics? Aren’t we just wasting our time studying rational, philosophical arguments? Why not simply accept the value of our intuitions and act accordingly? Why not simply go with our gut?

The problem with simply trusting our gut is that even a surface-level exploration of our own history points to examples of people whose intuitions led them to conclusions that most of us today recognize as immoral. Our own community is still coming to grips with the consequences of the moral intuitions that people long had about race, for example. The legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and anti-miscegenation loom over us, enough to suggest that we should be wary of simply trusting our intuitions. Reason is important.  While our moral actions might not be fundamentally guided by our heads, reason offers a critical check on our moral impulses.  By thinking about ethics we put ourselves in a position to assess whether our moral intuitions are pointing us in the right direction.

This is what reflective equilibrium is about. Reflective equilibrium is a methodology that strives to make rational sense of our moral intuitions. When thinking about ethics I am attempting to subject my moral intuitions to rational scrutiny.  Knowing that my intuitions are basic to my moral identity, but aware that I cannot simply trust my intuitions without question, what I am seeking when I think about ethics are rational arguments that can explain why my moral intuitions are, in fact, valid.  I find reflective equilibrium when my moral intuitions–for example, my intuition that raping and mutilating a young child is morally wrong–converge with a rational argument that explain why rape and mutilation are morally wrong. Feeling so strongly about the essential wrongness of rape, I might encounter Immanuel Kant’s argument that morality requires that we always respect the inherent dignity of every other person, never treating people as means to an end.  Kant’s argument helps me make rational sense of why Todd’s actions are morally wrong, and why my intuitive response is morally appropriate.  Or perhaps I’ll find myself quite drawn to a utilitarian argument about the horrendous social consequences that would occur were we to conclude that rape is morally right, the adverse effects on the victim, the fear and distrust that such a conclusion would cause in our society, the effects that such a conclusion would have on human relationships. Both arguments offer a rational basis for explaining why my moral intuitions are morally appropriate.

Ideally, it is possible for us to achieve reflective equilibrium for all of our intuitions, to make rational sense of why we should feel the way that we do about the range of moral issues we encounter.  However, this is the challenge: sometimes there are circumstances where our moral intuitions conflict with a rational argument that on its face seems quite persuasive. In these moments, we experience disequilibrium.  In my ethics classroom some of the most interesting and instructive moments for students happen when they first encounter a rational argument that calls one of their deeply held moral intuitions into question. A student might have a very strong feeling that abortion is a gravely immoral act, for example, but then they are required to read Judith Jarvis Thomson’s article “A Defense of Abortion.” Thomson’s thought experiment of the unconscious dying violinist troubles this intuition.  They find her argument compelling, and they are left wrestling with what they have long felt about abortion and what Thomson is suggesting is the rational thing to believe. Conversely, a student might have a very strong intuition that there is nothing morally problematic about terminating an early-term fetus, but then the student reads Don Marquis’s article, “Why Abortion is Immoral,” and the student begins to grapple with an argument that suggests they should feel very differently about the act of abortion.

So what do you do when you experience disequilibrium?  Here you are faced with several possibilities.  First, in the face of a conflict between your moral intuitions and a persuasive rational argument you might simply throw your hands up in the air, dismiss the argument and go with your gut.  This is a bad choice, in my view.  Remember, we are already aware that moral intuitions have led people to embrace beliefs and practices that we now recognize as immoral.  We can’t simply trust our moral guts.  Dismissing an argument because it conflicts with what you feel is intellectually lazy.  It’s a sign that you lack virtue.

Here is another possibility: the conflict between your moral intuition and a rational argument might force you to look at the rational argument more closely.  Digging more deeply into the details of the argument you might discover that what initially seems quite persuasive to you is flawed. The argument relies on a logical fallacy, or it neglects something critical to understanding the moral question. You search further for a better argument, perhaps revising the argument to address its weakness, or finally dismissing the argument altogether when a better argument comes along, one that offers a better basis for understanding why your moral intuitions have been correct all along. This rational argument helps you find reflective equilibrium once again.

Here is a final possibility.  Your gut is is speaking to you about a moral question, and you encounter a persuasive rational argument that calls your intuitions into question.  Digging more deeply into the argument, you keep looking for flaws, but you begin to realize that the real problem rests not in the argument itself, but in your intuitions.  This very strong feeling that you have is where the problem is.  To find reflective equilibrium what needs to change is not the argument, but your gut. Finding reflective equilibrium requires a change to your character.  You need to become a person who feels differently about things.

This is how I think about the work that I do in the ethics classroom. When we think about ethics we put ourselves in a position where we are better able to check these very powerful intuitions that drive our moral lives.  Moral intuitions are fallible, as are the rational judgments that we make about the right and the good.  Reflective equilibrium is a model that requires us to acknowledge this fallibility, to pursue moral arguments with others in a spirit of openness and humility, aware that our moral lives entail this back and forth between intuition and reason. When we come to see the task of ethics in this way we open ourselves to forging a different kind of community, one in which our moral disagreements with others are defined not by anxiety and fear but by generosity and mutual respect.

So what does this have to do with libertarianism?  Occasionally when discussing my current project with people I’ll have an interlocutor query why I’m spending time reading thinkers who have had minimal impact in the field of Christian ethics, let alone in the wider academy.  It’s a fair question. I’ve offered several answers to this question over the last year. I tell folks that I find libertarianism interesting. I point to colleagues and friends who identify as libertarian, people whom I respect whose ideas I want to understand better.  I remind people that while libertarianism is not front-and-center in contemporary American policies that the language and ideas that are foundational to libertarian thought–appeals to liberty, aggressive diatribes against the evils of socialism, and demands for a smaller state–are embraced by a substantial swath of the American public.

In the end when I explain to people why I’m studying libertarianism the most important answer for me is this: libertarian theorists are asking people like me to check our moral intuitions about some facets of our life together that we have taken for granted.  When Murray Rothbard tells me, for example, that states are nothing more than crime syndicates, that my commitment to liberty entails that I advocate for the abolition of all states, he is telling me that my gut needs to change, that I need to be a different person.  In reading libertarian thinkers like Nozick, Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, and Woods I experience disequilibrium. Libertarian thinkers force me to do what I want my students to do every semester, to remain open to the possibility that my intuitions are what really need to change.

This is a deeply unsettling conclusion for me, but it’s one I can’t help but embrace. That’s what reflective equilibrium requires.  That said, the other possibility is also the case. It could well be that given my deep intuitions about the legitimate role that states play in the world that these intuitions point to problems in the arguments that libertarians like Rothbard make.  This is where I find myself at this moment. Rothbard’s argument points us to some moral conclusions that on their face seem patently absurd, even grotesque. That’s what I want to talk about in my next post.

We’re going to talk about the problem of children.





Libertarianism 6: State? We Don’t Need No Stinking State.

This post is the latest in my ongoing series on libertarianism.  Previous posts are linked to here: Post 1, Post 2, Post 3, Post 4, Post 5

Over the last several posts I have focused attention on minarchism: a libertarian philosophy that asserts that only a minimal state can be justified.  In today’s blog post I turn my attention to anarchism: a libertarian approach that asserts that no state is morally justifiable.  I knew very little about anarchism prior to 2008 when one of my college friends, Jason Jewell, introduced me to Murray Rothbard.  Rothbard is not widely known in mainstream academia, but he has taken on something of a cult following in libertarian circles.  This semester I’ve read a fair portion of his book Man, Economy, and State (Rothbard’s primary economics text, foundational for understanding contemporary Austrian School economics), and the entirety of his libertarian ethics text, The Ethics of Liberty.  Rothbard is a good writer, so the reading has been a pleasure, though I remain unpersuaded by the brand of libertarianism he defends.  I’ll try to unpack the reasons for my discontent over the next few blog posts.


But first, my introduction to anarcho-libertarianism (note: my summary here draws heavily from Rothbard’s work.  All page references are from Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (New York: New York University Press, 1998).  Rothbard’s book is available electronically at the Mises Institute website, here.).

We begin with a thought experiment.  Imagine for the moment that you are Robinson Crusoe, stranded on a remote island and afflicted with a horrible case of amnesia.  You are alone and desperate, but the island itself is lush, with fruit trees and ample fresh water for you to sustain yourself.  On the island, you are faced with a number of incontrovertible facts.  We can say, first of all, that you are a fully conscious being who has rational control of your own body.  Second you realize that you are faced with an abundance of ends that you might choose for yourself on the island.  You might choose to address your immediate need for food, for example, by fishing, or by plucking fresh coconuts or mangoes from the trees.  You might harvest palm branches to fashion for yourself a makeshift shelter.  Aware that a cold night is approaching, you might search for sticks and put your effort into creating a fire from them.  Or you might find yourself touched by the beauty of the sun rising over the ocean horizon and choose to spend your time admiring the scene as the tide rolls in.


But this is the key point: on this island you, Robinson Crusoe, are free to choose. Given your desperate circumstance, you likely will choose first to address your immediate needs: fire, food, and shelter.  Given enough time–and you have a lot of time on your hands; you are alone on an island–you begin transforming the island. You begin with fire.  It takes you hours to get that first spark, but you succeed, and before long you’ve got a fire that will keep you warm. You construct a temporary shelter to protect yourself from the elements. The coconuts you are able to find on the beach sustain you during the first week of your ordeal.  Over the next several months you live a trial-and-error existence. After days of failure you revel in your success when you kill your first fish with the wooden spear you created with your own hands. You practice for days to hone your fishing skills, and before long you discover that you are an excellent fisherman. Over the next several months your temporary shelter gives way to a sturdier house built from the logs you hewed.  You experience some setbacks.  Those mushrooms looked really tasty, but you discovered they were poisonous and spent the next two days confined to the latrine you created.  It took you days to recover from the injuries afflicted by that wild boar you were hunting.  For you, fishing is the name off the game. Over time, you labor, and through your labor you transform your camp into something that is a reflection of the choices that you yourself have made.

Now clearly the real world is more complex than Crusoe’s isolated island, so let’s complicate the thought experiment by bringing another person into the picture.  Imagine that a second person (let’s call him Friday) lands in another part of the island.  Like you, Friday works hard to create shelter, fire, and a stable supply of food.  However, Friday discovers that while he is not a very good fisherman he is uncommonly good at growing wheat. One day Friday observes smoke on the horizon.  Curious, Friday makes his way to your camp.  Pleased to discover that he is not alone, Friday strikes up a conversation with you:

Friday: “I’m so happy to find I’m not alone! I must confess, I’ve grown weary of striking up conversations with the coconut dolls I’ve created back at my camp.  How nice it will be to have a real person to talk to!”

Crusoe: “Yes, nice indeed.  How are things on your side of the island?”

Friday: “Not bad.  I’ve got plenty of food, and a decent shelter.  I must confess, however, I’m getting sick of mangoes, coconuts, and bread.”

Crusoe: “Wait, you have bread?”

Friday: “Sure I do.  I’ve got an entire field of wheat I’ve already harvested once, with more planted. Don’t you?”

Crusoe: “No, I didn’t even consider planting wheat.  I spend a lot of my time fishing.  You see those Mahi Mahi hanging in my smoker box out back?”

Friday: “You have fish?  Wow, I tried to fish but was having no luck.  Sure wish I had your skill.”

Crusoe: “I have an idea.  How about we agree to trade?  I’ll give you one fish for every two loaves of bread.”

Friday: “Right now I don’t have enough land planted to give you that much bread.  Can we make it a one for one trade?  If you agree I’ll plan on planting more wheat as soon as possible.  With the additional grain I should be able to supply more bread for both of us.”

Crusoe: “That sounds good.  Let’s trade!”

So you and Friday and trade.  Notice that your trade is itself another reflection of a choice that both of you have made, something that you both deem mutually beneficial.  Nobody coerced you or Friday to agree to the trade. When Friday brings his loaves of bread to you and receives your fish, this exchange transfers ownership of both goods.  The bread, formerly owned by Friday, now belongs to you, Crusoe.  The fish, formerly owned by you, now belong to Friday. And once again, the rights that both of you have to these goods are inalienable.

Let’s complicate things further still.  Let’s imagine now that you and Friday discover a handful of other individuals newly shipwrecked on the island, all of them carving out their own existence in this isolated world.  Quickly these individuals come to recognize the advantages of mutual exchange.  But a barter system is cumbersome (e.g. what if I want to trade bread for wood, but the person who has wood for trade doesn’t need bread?), so inevitably the island dwellers need to settle on some common medium of exchange, a money system. The island has a small, relatively uncommon but easily recognizable clam shell that the islanders agree to use as currency to ease their exchanges.

Over time, a market economy develops on the island, with each individual free to enter into any exchange that (s)he deems beneficial, and no individual coerced into exchanges that (s)he doesn’t desire. Some individuals on the island are shrewd negotiators and do very well, eventually accruing for themselves substantial quantities of money and natural resources. You are one.  You labored for weeks to weave your first fishing net, and before long you were unable to keep up with the island dwellers’ demand for your fish.  With growing demand, you create some new tools–fish traps!–but discovers that the islanders’ demand for fish is outstripping your ability to set traps, cast nets, and harvest fish.  You approach two new island settlers, Bligh and Cook, and offers to pay them a regular wage to catch fish using your tools.  For this regular wage, Bligh and Cook agree to give you the fish, which you then sell to the other islanders for a profit. Over time you develop a very successful fishing empire. Bligh and Cook also see the benefit of working for you, Crusoe, and they are always free to decline your offer if the wage is too low or if they decide to pursue some other end.

Some individuals fare less well.  Island dweller Jones spent a lot of time trying to convince the other islanders that the stench of death of his durian tree farm masked the richness of the fruit’s flavor.  Unable to overcome the islanders’ inhibitions, Jones failed to get his durian fruit business off the ground. Jones’s neighbor Smith was injured in a freak surfing accident that left him physically incapacitated and dependent on the kindness of the other island dwellers.  Over time the fortunes of the island inhabitants diverge. Some thrive. Others struggle. But the key point is this: these outcomes are all borne from the free choices that each individual makes.

Let’s take a step back for a moment and consider what all of this has to do with libertarianism. For Rothbard, Crusoe’s story is our story as well. Human nature is defined by our capacity to choose among the multiple ends available to us (or, in Rothbard’s words, freedom is found in a man’s ability “to choose the course of his life and his actions” (33)).  This freedom is inalienable. For someone to make these choices for me without my consent is a violation of my natural right. Furthermore, when Crusoe labors to transform the material world around him, Crusoe has “mixed his labor with the soil” (a phrase borrowed from John Locke).  In so doing, Crusoe can claim to own that which he has transformed. This principle holds in the real world as well.  When I take something previously not owned and labor to create something new, I can properly claim ownership of my creation. My claim to this property is also inalienable.  For someone to claim what I myself have created would be an act of theft.  Every person–male and female– possesses a natural right to his/her body, his/her choices, and his/her property. Hold on to this point. It’s important to understanding the thrust of Rothbard’s argument: every human possesses an inalienable right to body, choice among ends, and property. When any other persons threatens my body, coerces me to choose something wthout my consent, or steals my property from me I have a right to defend myself against this aggression.  

But to accept this truth as morally basic, argues Rothbard, entails that we also accept a most radical conclusion about the State.  States are nothing more than groups of individuals who claim for themselves a monopoly of coercive power within their geographic borders. States (i.e. these individuals who are claiming this monopoly for themselves) sustain their monopoly  by stealing resources. States have no metaphysical essence; they are simply facades for the unjust aggression of some individuals against others.

Back on Crusoe’s island, imagine for the moment that a small number of inhabitants decide that they alone are going to provide “protective services” to the other inhabitants, who will be forever barred from taking the law into their own hands. Furthermore, this “State” will also require the inhabitants barred from protecting themselves to pay for this protective service. Island inhabitants who refuse to pay will be subject to punishment by the individuals demanding payment. This sounds an awful lot like pizzo, the protective money that Italian business owners pay the Mafia, doesn’t it? But this is exactly what states do,  says Rothbard:

“If, then, taxation is compulsory, and is therefore indistinguishable from theft, it follows that the State, which subsists on taxation, is a vast criminal organization far more formidable and successful than any ‘private’ Mafia in history. Furthermore, it should be considered criminal not only according to the theory of crime and property rights as set forth in this book, but even according to the common apprehension of mankind, which always considers theft to be a crime” (166).

And if this is so, the moral to the story should be obvious.  If states are nothing more than criminal organizations, than what we need is not a minimal state (i.e. would we be okay with just a little criminal extortion?).  We need to abolish states altogether.  Anarcho-libertarians believe that a world built wholly on voluntary exchange is both possible and preferable to the world in which we currently live, a world in which so many are taken in by the false claims to legitimacy made by those states that intrude into every facet of our lives.


We might wonder, then, what a world organized around anarchist principles would look like. Here I’ll sketch the basic contours of what Rothbard envisions, a world built around voluntary exchange, not aggression:

(1) Police Protection: Individuals would retain the right to self-defense. Many individuals would choose to subscribe to protective services, so the police function of currently existing states would be turned over to voluntary protective organizations, each competing to provide services to consumers on an open market. There would be a similar market for fire services. Police and fire protection would come to resemble insurance markets that most of us are already familiar with.

(2) Education: Schools would be privately organized, funded through the tuition payments of individuals who pay for the privilege of sending their children to school. Compulsory attendance laws would be abolished. Parents would be free to home school.  Individuals would be free to establish charity-based schools or to organize low-cost community-based schools to provide education to the less well off, much as is already happening in impoverished communities around the world.

(3) Transportation: Roads would be privately owned and maintained, funded perhaps via a regular toll system paid by users.

(4) Criminal and Civil Justice: Every individual would be free to pursue retributive justice against any person who violates their property rights. Conflicting property claims would be adjudicated through a consensual system of arbitration. Compulsory jury duty would be abolished, and individuals would have no subpoena power to compel witnesses to testify.  Criminal punishment would aim at providing restitution to victims whose rights have been violated.

(5) Morality: Moral norms would not be legally enforceable. Individuals would be free to engage in illicit moral conduct as long as their actions do not interfere with the property rights of other individuals.  Prostitution, pornography and recreational drug consumption would be legally permissible, even if morally questionable.

(6) Money: No state or central bank would exist, so no single institution would have the power to control the supply of money used for mutual exchange. To avoid the risk of inflation (a trend that leads to the devaluation of money, and thus adversely impacts the property rights of lenders), the money supply would be tied to the supply of some relatively uncommon valuable good (e.g. gold), a standard that ensures the value of the money and limits the ability of any institution to devalue currency by creating money from scratch.

(7) Welfare: The physical needs of individuals unable to provide for themselves would be provided through a voluntary charitable system.

(8) Inequality: Income inequality would be inevitable and just as long as these inequalities are borne from the uncoerced exchanges of persons who seek the benefit of exchange.  Individuals would be free to reap the fruit, or suffer the consequences of the choices that they make. Debtors would be free to indenture themselves to creditors to pay off their debts.

There is a lot more that could be said to flesh out the anarcho-libertarian ideal that Rothbard points us toward, but this post is getting long.  I’ve got a lot to say about Rothbard’s argument, but for now I want to close by drawing attention to one of the revolutionary implications of the last point that may surprise individuals accustomed to dismissing libertarianism as little more than an ideology borne of upper-class, white privilege.  If income inequalities borne of uncoerced exchange are just, as Rothbard says, the flipside of this is also true: inequalities borne of coerced exchanges are not just and the violation of the rights of the coerced demand compensation.  Rothbard is unflinching in pointing to the historical significance of this conclusion:

“[T]here was only one possible moral solution for the slave question: immediate and unconditional abolition, with no compensation to the slavemasters.  Indeed, any compensation should have been the other way–to repay the oppressed slaves for their lifetime of slavery. A vital part of such necessary compensation would have been to grant the plantation lands not to the slavemaster, who scarcely had valid title to any property, but to the slaves themselves, whose labor, on our ‘homesteading’ principle, was mixed with the soil to develop the plantations. In short, at the very least, elementary libertarian justice required not only the immediate freeing of the slaves, but also the immediate turning over to the slaves, again without compensation to the masters, of the plantation lands on which they had worked and sweated” (75).

To the extent that slaves were deprived of property and were thus unable to gift this property generationally, one can make a very strong case for the justice of some form of reparations to the generational victims, and this on purely libertarian grounds. When inequalities abound, the key question is to what degree these realities are the byproduct of free exchange. Crusoe is free to get wealthy by selling fish to the islanders. He’s not free to reap the benefits of the labor of people he enslaves, nor would Crusoe be free to pass on the wealth borne from this enslavement to his descendants. I find this revolutionary impulse to Rothbard’s argument intriguing and compelling. In spite of this, I remain unpersuaded by his overall case for anarchism.  I’ll begin unpacking why this is so in my next post.




Libertarianism 5: Robert Nozick on the Minimalist State

This post is part of an ongoing series on the topic of Christian libertarianism.  Previous posts in this series can be accessed via these hyperlinks: Post 1, Post 2, Post 3, Post 4

In this week’s post I’m going to present a summary of Robert Nozick’s libertarian case for a minimalist state, developed in his important book Anarchy, State, and Utopia.  Before doing so, however, I want to situate this summary within the flow of the argument I began a few weeks back.  Earlier I made the claim that minarchism (i.e. a libertarian perspective that asserts the legitimacy of a minimalist state) is self-defeating in that minarchists offer no distinctively libertarian basis that can justify the actions of even a minimalist state.  Last week I argued that John Locke’s social contract theory is not self-defeating, but it is also not all that libertarian, at least by the standards set out earlier in this series.

But what about Nozick? My sabbatical this semester has afforded me the opportunity to reread Nozick’s book, one that I haven’t touched since my doctoral work.  In Anarchy, State, and Utopia Nozick offers readers an alternative spin to social contract theory that, while beginning where Locke does, offers readers a very different picture–a “thought experiment,” as it were–of how a minimalist state could emerge from the state of nature that does not violate the natural rights of persons. Nozick’s argument goes much farther in advancing a distinctively libertarian response to the argument I’ve been developing.


Nozick has a story to tell about how a minimalist state could emerge from the state of nature.  I’m going to tell Nozick’s story below, but before doing so I feel the need to explain the purpose of what philosophers sometimes call “thought experiments.” It is more or less common practice in some branches of philosophy for scholars to offer up simple, sometimes quite extreme, examples as a way of advancing a philosophical argument.  One of the more famous thought experiments is the Trolley Problem, a thought experiment that has generated not only an endless series of outlandish memes but an entire cottage industry of academic articles and book-length treatments of the problem.


Those who defend the use of thought experiments recognize that the scenarios they are describing are imaginary, not historical.  Philosophers use thought experiments in order to isolate relevant features in the topic at hand. To borrow from author David Edmonds, thought experiments allow philosophers to block out the background variables (the “moral hiss”) that make our real world judgments and intuitions more difficult to discern. The point is that philosophers believe that these sorts of stories can be illuminating even if they are not describing a real, historical moment.  The Trolley Problem can help us grasp something important about our rational moral judgments, even if there was never a moment in history when a person had to decide whether to pull the lever, push an obese man off a bridge, or spin the turntable. The concept of the state of nature can be useful in illuminating the purpose and legitimacy of the state, even if it does not describe a real moment in human history.

Nozick’s argument in Anarchy, State, and Utopia is similar to the Trolley Problem in this sense: Nozick wants to tell us a story about how a minimalist state could emerge without violating the rights of any individual.  He is not saying that the story he tells is a historical analysis of how states formed.  He is offering, in his words, a “fundamental potential explanation” (8) of how a minimalist state could form, even if actual states emerged through some other process.  Like philosophers who rely on thought experiments, Nozick believes that his story offers us leverage in understanding why a minimalist state is justifiable.

Nozick begins where John Locke does, back in the state of nature.  To get at the substance of Nozick’s argument consider how different his vision is than Locke’s.  As I described in my last post, Locke believes that individuals living in the state of nature when encountered with the inconveniences of that state will consent to enter into a social contract, giving up their executive power to a sovereign authority responsible for adjudicating conflicting property claims and protecting their natural rights. In so doing individuals implicitly consent to submit themselves to the majority will, though individuals retain their natural rights even under the social contract and may resist those states that threaten these rights.


Like Locke, Nozick identifies all of the disadvantages that we encounter in the state of nature as problems that demand a solution.  But from this point Nozick parts company with Locke.  Locke believes that the disadvantages of the state of nature give ample reason for individuals to give up their executive power. As I noted in my previous post, Locke’s argument leads to some decidedly non-libertarian conclusions about the legitimacy of the state (which, according to Locke, you implicitly consent to as a member of the community) and the authority of the majority will.

Not Nozick.  Nozick observes that individuals faced with the disadvantages of the state of nature have other options that stop short of giving up their executive power. Nozick offers up a more complicated story how how a state could emerge from the state of nature, a story that (from the libertarian perspective) offers numerous advantages when compared to the story that Locke tells. We might think of Nozick’s story (his “thought experiment”) as one that occurs over multiple connecting moments, like links in a narrative chain.

Link 1: From the State of Nature to Mutual Protective Associations

At the beginning of the story we are back in Locke’s state of nature. Faced with all of the disadvantages that Locke observes (e.g. what if I’m weaker than the armed robber who stole my property? What if other individuals seek restitution from me that is excessive?), Nozick argues that there is nothing logical that demands that I give up my executive power.  Instead of entering into a Lockean social contract, in the state of nature individuals could choose to form “mutual protective associations” (MPAs) with other individuals.  An MPA is a union of individuals in which each member agrees to come to the other’s aid when faced with unjust aggression. Imagine Larry and Moe, who are members of the same MPA:

Larry: “Moe, last night one of our neighbors, Curly, broke into my home and stole a wooden chest I fashioned over many months from wood I hewed in my back yard. As an MPA member, I am calling on you to come to my aid so that we can recover my stolen property.”

Moe: “Larry, what Curly has done to you is terrible!  I’ll be at your door shortly and will help you recover your stolen property. Do you know Shemp and Joe?  They are members of our association too.  I’ll invite them to come along.  I’m sure the four of us together can solve this problem.”


Participation in an MPA is entirely consensual; nobody here is forcing anyone to enter into a contract. Instead of world in which each of us is beholden to a single authority (a “state”), we find ourselves in a world populated by multiple MPAs, each with its own membership.  These MPAs exist alongside individuals who are members of no MPA at all and retain their individual executive power. The MPAs will go some way in addressing some of the disadvantages intrinsic to life in the state of nature.

Alas, says Nozick, while MPAs might resolve some of the problems, individuals who live in this world will encounter other disadvantages just as troubling as those they left behind.  In an MPA each individual will be on permanent call to come to the aid of other members, a burden that will be cumbersome, especially if an MPA includes even a few paranoid or cantankerous members who feel their rights to be constantly under threat. Who among us will have the time to respond to every threat or harm experienced by every member? Also, what is an MPA to do when there is disagreement between MPA members over property rights? What if Curly has some reason to believe that the wooden chest is his property (what if Larry mistakenly used wood from Curly’s back yard?)? What if Curly is a member of the MPA and he calls on the MPA to come to his aid when Larry arrives at his door? What are members of the MPA to do?

Quickly these disadvantages will lead MPAs to contract with  individuals who will take responsibility for providing protection (i.e. a defense force that assumes the burden previously placed on each individual) and adjudicating member disputes (i.e. an independent system of arbitration that resolves the conflicting claims of group members). Larry will no longer call directly on other MPA members to come to his aid.  Instead, Larry and other clients will pay a regular fee to the MPA, and the MPA will hire a defense service dedicated solely to the task of protecting client members.

Link 2: From MPAs to Dominant Protective Associations

This does not yet get us to a state, however.  What we have instead is a world filled with multiple MPAs, each one now contracting with its own private defense force that provides protective services to its members alone. Nozick argues that this world will inevitably evolve into a world in which a single protective association becomes dominant in a given region (a “dominant protective association”).  How so? Initially MPAs are likely to offer their services in a free market, with each MPA competing for the same clients.  MPAs are analogous to insurance companies in this sense: they are offering protection to individuals who are free to choose which company they will contract with (or to choose no company at all to provide these services). Imagine Larry, faced with three protective associations–State Farm, Prudential, and Blue Shield–each offering to provide him protective services. Larry looks at the price and range of services each company is offering, and he opts to go with State Farm.  Some of his neighbors do as well.  Other neighbors go with Prudential, and others with Blue Shield.  In other regions there are other competing companies, each offering their own protective services.

So now imagine that Larry, a client of State Farm, has a property dispute with Curly, who decided to go with Prudential.  State Farm and Prudential are required to protect the property rights of their clients.  So what happens if representatives of State Farm and Prudential do not agree about the respective property claims of Larry and Curly? In the face of their conflict, there are three possibilities.

First, State Farm and Prudential could do battle (these are defense forces, after all!), and one of them could win repeatedly.  If State Farm wins most of them time, and Prudential loses, Curly (and other Prudential clients) will quickly lose trust in the services that Prudential is offering. Curly will not keep paying for protection from an agency that isn’t protecting him. In this circumstance, Curly will eventually opt to purchase the services of State Farm.

Second, State Farm and Prudential might each win in different geographic regions.  If State Farm tends to win in region A and Prudential in region B, then in region A individuals will tend to contract with State Farm, and in region B individuals will contract with Prudential. Larry and Curly are neighbors and would either end up both contracting with State Farm, or Curly might opt to move to region B to be closer to the power center of Prudential, his preferred protective association.

Third, State Farm and Prudential might win and lose more or less equally in the same geographic region. Finding their conflicts to be costly, State Farm and Prudential will quickly realize they need some sort of third party judicial system that can take responsibility for adjudicating these conflicts. They agree to set up just such a system to resolve these disputes in a less costly manner.

Here is the key point: In each of these outcomes, what we eventually arrive at is a situation in which a single association dominates in a geographic region, or an agreed-upon third party emerges in a region with regulatory power that supersedes that of any individual association. This moves us one step closer to a state, and in Nozick’s telling this quasi-state is emerging not through coercion but through the consensual exchanges of individuals. Says Nozick,

Out of anarchy, pressed by spontaneous groupings, mutual-protection associations, division of labor, market pressures, economies of scale, and rational self-interest there arises something very much resembling a minimal state or a group of geographically distinct minimal states” (16-17).

Link 3: From Dominant Protective Association to the Ultraminimalist State

In this thought experiment we now find ourselves in a world filled with geographically-centered dominant protective associations. Dominant protective associations are not minimalist states, however. Larry and Curly may be members of State Farm, but they are always free to stop being clients, and there may well be individuals like Shemp who finally decide to opt out altogether from the association. If Shemp is a non-client he retains his executive power.  Shemp cannot assume that the association will protect him or provide him any other service. Shemp is on his own, free to assert his natural rights and to punish unjust infringements of them.

But here protective associations face a new problem.  State Farm has an obligation to protect its members from unjust and arbitrary infringements of their rights. Very quickly State Farm will recognize that non-clients like Shemp who retain their own power to punish infringements pose a threat to their clients. How can anyone be confident that Shemp, responsible for protecting his own rights and for punishing those who violate them, will do so in a fair and non-arbitrary way?


“If there were many independents,” says Nozick, “who were all liable to punish wrongly, the probabilities would add up to create a dangerous situation for all” (89). Shemp might be rational and reasonable (though I doubt it. Have you ever met Shemp?), and it could be the case that his judgments will be fair and nonarbitrary.  But what about other individuals? State Farm cannot assume that all individuals will act fairly in executing their natural rights. Indeed, recall that concerns about the inevitable tendencies of individuals in the state of nature to allow self-interest to cloud their judgment are one of those disadvantages that initially compelled individuals to seek some remedy.

In order to protect members from this substantial risk, dominant protective associations inevitably will become “ultraminimalist states.” An ultraminimalist state assumes a de facto (not de jure) monopoly on executive power. State Farm is going to say to Shemp and every other individual non-client, “No you are no longer permitted to enforce your own rights.” However, in an ultraminimalist state, the only persons who receive the protective services of the state are those clients who pay for these services (i.e. the members of the dominant protective association).  The ultraminimalist state does not redistribute resources to provide universal protection to non-clients.  Here State Farm prohibits Shemp from protecting himself.  State Farm also does not provide any protective services to Shemp.

Link 4: From the Ultraminimalist State to the Minimalist State

In order to protect its clients, the ultraminimalist state prohibits individuals from enforcing their own rights, but as it stands an ultraminimalist state only provides protective services to its clients. But denying Shemp the opportunity to enforce his own rights puts him in a grave circumstance. Denied access to the protective services of State Farm, Shemp seems to have no recourse when his rights are violated. This leads to the moral crux of Nozick’s story.  Because the ultraminimalist state prohibits individuals from enforcing their own rights, this state acts unjustly unless it becomes a minimalist state that guarantees universal protection to all:

“A protective agency dominant in a territory does satisfy the two crucial necessary conditions for being a state.  It is the only generally effective enforcer of a prohibition on others’ using unreliable enforcement procedures (calling them as it sees them), and it oversees these procedures. And the agency protects those nonclients in its territory whom it prohibits from using self-help enforcement procedures on its clients, in their dealings with its clients, even if such protection must be financed (in apparent redistributive fashion) by its clients. It is morally required to do this by the principle of compensation, which requires those who act in self-protection in order to increase their own security to compensate those they prohibit from doing risky acts which might actually have turned out to be harmless, for the disadvantages imposed upon them” (113-114).

Nozick believes that State Farm acts reasonably and justifiably when it denies Shemp the power to enforce his own rights, much as communities today act justifiably when they deny those suffering from epilepsy the right to drive an automobile, given the threat they pose to other drivers.  But in denying individuals this right, State Farm must compensate those individuals for this denial. Shemp will not be permitted to enforce his own rights, but Shemp (and every other person in State Farm’s geographic center) will receive the protective services of State Farm as compensation for this infringement.

So here is a graphic summary of Nozick’s “thought experiment”:


Let’s take stock of Nozick’s argument by connecting it to the complaint of Citizen X from my previous post.  Recall Citizen X’s complaint to the minarchist:

Citizen X: “I don’t want to submit to your authority.  I’m perfectly willing to purchase my own protection, and I’m more confident that a private personal defense contractor will provide better protective service to me than a bloated, inefficient state.  Further, I object to your demand that I pay taxes to subsidize the cost of the protective services you are providing to others.  If other people want your police protection, make them pay for it.  I see no reason why I must pay so that other people get access to the services you are offering.”

As I described in my previous post, John Locke’s reply to Citizen X would appeal to the implicit consent that Citizen X gave when he left the state of nature to enjoy all of the advantages of political community.  Nozick, by contrast, offers a reply to Citizen X that does not depend on appeals to an imaginary moment in which implicit consent overrides the explicit objections of citizen X:

Robert Nozick: “Citizen X, yes I know you must experience it as a grave and unfortunate thing that the state is denying you the power to protect your rights as you yourself see fit. This denial is regrettable, but it is also necessary. The state has an obligation to protect the natural rights of all members, and while it may well be the case that you are an individual who would execute your rights justly and proportionately, we cannot guarantee that every individual will do so. To permit every individual to execute justice for themselves will subject other people to risk and fear. This is why we are denying you this power.  However, we recognize that in doing so we are crossing a moral boundary that adversely impacts you. In so doing, we also recognize that this boundary crossing requires compensation to you. The compensation that we offer you is this: we will guarantee you all of the protective services that we provide to our members. It is reasonable for us to expect you to pay as much as you would have paid for the private protective service you desire, so taxing you for the services we are providing to you is not unjust unless the financial burden we place on you is greater than what you would have paid privately.  We are a minimalist state, so our financial expectations will be similarly minimal.”

This post has gotten long, so I’ll conclude by returning to the initial question: does Nozick’s case for minarchism avoid my criticism that minarchism is self-defeating? On close inspection I’m not persuaded that it does. If my summary of Nozick’s response to citizen X above is accurate, then it begs us to wonder how many other interventions by the state could be justified on compensatory rather than redistributive grounds. Murray Rothbard wonders how Nozick could possibly keep his minimalist state from devolving into a totalitarian one. The logic of Nozick’s argument leads to conclusions that no libertarian could possibly embrace:

“[T]he most important argument for Prohibition was the undoubted fact that people commit significantly more crimes, more acts of negligence on the highways, when under the influence of alcohol than when cold sober. So why not prohibit alcohol, and thereby reduce risk and fear, perhaps “compensating” the unfortunate victims of the law by free, tax-financed supplies of healthful grape juice? Or the infamous Dr. Arnold Hutschneker’s plan of “identifying” allegedly future criminals in the grade schools, and then locking them away for suitable brainwashing? If not, why not?”

While I find some of Rothbard’s critique of Nozick to be overwrought, his observation here is on target. Consider just how many other “risks” individual (non)actions pose to members of society.  Individuals who do not have health insurance pose financial risks to people who do, for example. Individuals without insurance indirectly raise the cost of insurance premiums for all of us, and the uncompensated care they receive directly raise the overall cost of emergency care. On the basis of Nozick’s own minarchist logic, why would these facts not provide sufficient reason to mandate that individuals purchase coverage, subsidizing the cost for those unable to pay?

Or consider that some families refuse to vaccinate their children for measles, a decision that poses real health risks to young infants not yet old enough to be vaccinated. On the basis of Nozick’s own argument, why wouldn’t it be justifiable to mandate that parents vaccinate, compensating individuals by subsidizing the cost of this protection? If Nozick insists that it is morally appropriate to mandate states provide universal police protection and military defense as a way of compensating individuals who might otherwise engage in risky behavior, why stop there?  Liberals like me have our own reasons for embracing universal health coverage and mandatory vaccinations.  We’d be perfectly happy to allow Nozickian-minded minarchists to offer up their own reasons for reaching these same conclusions, celebrating the overlapping consensus that leads us to embraced shared policy. While these policies are surely a bridge too far for minarchists, it’s not entirely clear why this should be so.

Looking ahead: next weekend I’m heading to Pennsylvania for a Spring Break trip that will include several days at Grove City College, which houses the collected papers of Ludwig Von Mises.  Not quite certain if I’ll find what I’m looking for there, but I am looking forward to the visit.  This trip will likely delay my next blog post.  My tentative plan is to turn my attention to anarcho-libertarianism in my next post.  I eventually want to test the logical limits of anarcho-libertarianism by attending to Rothbard’s own assessment of how anarcho-libertarianism handles the difficult issue of children’s rights and parental responsibility (why this is a problem might not be readily apparent here; I’ll get into this in a future post). Following this, I plan to turn my attention to the topic of Christian libertarianism by looking more closely at a written debate I uncovered during my research between two Congregationalist ministers of the 20th century, Edmund Opitz (a prominent figure in libertarian circles) and John Bennett (an important figure in 20th century liberal Protestantism). Virtually no academic work has been done on this debate, and some of my archival work this Spring has uncovered some primary sources that shed light on a Christian conversation occurring in the mid-20th century between Christian libertarian iconoclasts and representatives of the liberal Protestant mainstream.  More to come on this!






Libertarianism 4: Minarchism Revisited (or “No, John Locke is not a Libertarian”)

This is the fourth post in my ongoing series on Christian libertarianism.  Previous posts can be found by clicking on the following links: Post 1, Post 2, Post 3.

My last post on minarchism elicited some comments from some of my libertarian friends. I’m going to begin this post by flagging one comment in particular, offered by Dr. J (not the Dr. J of basketball renown; This is Dr. Jason Jewell, a college friend of mine, a Faulkner University professor and affiliated scholar at the Mises Institute). Jason writes:

Minarchism is self-defeating only if Lockean social contract theory is self-defeating. Minarchist libertarians usually resort to some sort of contract theory that justifies a “night-watchman” state, e.g. the state can defend property because each individual has the natural right to do the same, etc. So I think you’d need to deal with contract theory in some way to make this criticism stick.

Also, folks like Hayek aren’t strictly reasoning from the NAP. Hayek was an old-school classical liberal just seeking to maximize individual freedom, and he was willing to make pragmatic concessions here and there on things like the welfare state if he could get people to give up central planning.

I appreciate Jason’s observation and want to use it as the launching point for this week’s post.  Jason is correct to observe that minarchists often rely on social contract theory to justify the minimalist state.  If I’m understanding Jason correctly, he is suggesting that my previous post neglects to attend to one of the major philosophical streams that informs minarchist visions of the state: Lockean social contract theory.  I think Jason is correct here. In this post I want to consider whether or not Locke himself resolves the problem I point to in my previous post. I believe Locke does to some degree, but only because Locke himself is not the libertarian that some interpreters would have us believe. Thus the alternative title for today’s post, “No, John Locke is not a Libertarian.”

With regard to Hayek and the NAP, it’s hard for me to know what to take from Jason’s comment.  If I’m understanding Jason correctly he seems to be suggesting that the market interventions that Hayek himself defends in Serfdom are not so much principled commitments flowing from Hayek’s own theory as they are Hayek’s pragmatic acquiescence to the welfare state.  The principle problem I see with this interpretation is that it doesn’t well make sense of the language that Hayek himself employs when he defends state-sponsored social insurance and state laws regulating working hours.  Hayek doesn’t frame this commitment as a pragmatic departure on his part, a way of getting along with the welfare state. He says that such a scheme is entirely compatible with a commitment to freedom.  In other words, Hayek seems to think that what he is advocating here is consistent with the thrust of his argument in Serfdom. I find Hayek’s argument frustrating here in that he doesn’t do much to explain why he thinks guaranteeing security to individuals is compatible with his own definition of liberty.

But enough about Hayek. Recall that in my last post I argued that minarchism (i.e. the libertarian perspective that defends the legitimacy of a minimalist state) is self-defeating.  My argument was that minarchism offers no distinctively libertarian basis upon which it is possible to justify even the limited actions of the minimalist state. When a state assumes the role of protecting every member, and when that state prohibits individuals from executing justice for themselves when they believe their rights are violated, how is this not just another example of aggression? Can a state exist that does not violate the rights of persons? John Locke (1632-1704) was a 17th-century English philosopher, a major figure in what is today known as the social contract tradition. In his Second Treatise of Government, Locke makes the case that a limited state can exist that upholds the rights of persons (note: parenthetical citations below point to sections in Locke’s Second Treatise).  The question is, does Locke’s argument offer sufficient grounds for justifying a minimalist state, or is it too self-defeating?


I’m going to assume for the moment that readers are not familiar with Lockean social contract theory, begging forgiveness if the next few paragraphs are overly elementary to some readers. Without getting too bogged down in the nuances of Locke’s account of the origins of private property (an important conversation related to the topic of my post here, but something I haven’t the space to tackle) and the Lockean Proviso (also very important to understanding Locke, but not immediately relevant to what I’m focusing on at the moment) I’m going to summarize the story that Locke tells that leads him to his conclusion about the legitimacy of a limited state.

Locke begins by asking us to imagine a world in which there are no states.  Let’s call this state what Locke calls it, the “state of nature.” In the state of nature every individual possesses a natural right to their body.  Every person has a natural right to labor and reap the benefits of what they produce when they mix their labor with nature.  If I am a talented wood craftsman, for example, and I see a oak tree in the forest, a tree that I proceed to cut down and carve into a fine oak chest, I can legitimately claim that this chest is mine.  I have a right to this chest because I mixed my labor with nature in a way that gives me a rightful claim to what I have produced. I have this right, and so does every other individual in the state of nature (Note: I’m glossing over a lot of academic discussion about Locke’s theory of property).


My right to mix my labor with nature is not mine alone. In the state of nature every person lives in “a State of perfect freedom” and “Equality” (§4). In the state of nature there is no government that takes responsibility for enforcing my right or protecting me from those thieves that might steal what is mine. In the state of nature when my right is violated–say that an armed robber enters my home and takes that fine oak chest I created–I have a natural right to punish the thief and to exact compensation from him.  He has violated my rights.  And here again, every other individual has this same right to punish and seek compensation.  Says Locke, “every Man hath a Right to punish the Offender, and be Executioner of the Law of Nature” (§8).


What would life be like in this state of nature?  Locke’s vision here is not as bleak as that of his 17th-century contemporary Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).  Hobbes’s pessimistic account of human nature leads him to conclude that life in the state of nature would be terrible. With individuals being driven to-and-fro by their unchecked desires and impulses, conflict and unending war are the inevitable outcomes.  Here life can only be “nasty, brutish, and short.”  Locke’s assessment of human nature is more modest. Yes, humans are acquisitive and self-interested, but humans can also embody the positive moral sentiments of compassion and other-regard. Human nature encompasses both virtue and vice. Thus, it would be quite possible for people to continue living in this state, and Locke seems to believe that there are moments historically in which humans have lived as such. Says Locke, “Men living together according to reason, without a common Superior on Earth, with Authority to judge between them is properly the State of Nature” (§19).

But this more positive assessment raises a critical question: if individuals could live in this way, each person asserting their natural right with no sovereign to interfere, what would ever compel individuals to leave the state of nature?  Hobbes’s pessimistic assessment of human nature points us to an obvious conclusion: in the state of nature our mutual fear and desire for security leads us to give up our natural right to all things. We are willing to forsake our natural rights, giving them over to a single sovereign who assumes responsibility for adjudicating our conflicts, enforcing law, and protecting us from the chaos that would ensue absent the sovereign’s rule.

But what about Locke? While life in the state of nature is possible and endurable, Locke argues that individuals will inevitably discover the disadvantages that attend life in this state. Yes, it is true that in the state of nature every individual possesses natural rights and that we will live alongside other individuals who are neither brutes nor saints. But even if humans have the capacity for compassion and other regard, in the state of nature what do we do when we disagree about what belongs to whom? I believe the oak chest is mine; you believe it is yours. I appeal to heaven, and so do you.  How do we resolve this conflict? In the state of nature each of us asserts what we believe to be our right, and there is no superior who can adjudicate the legitimacy of our claims. Conflicting property claims will too easily devolve into a conflict of wills in which brute force wins out over reasoned assessment of our claims.

Conflict over property claims is not the only disadvantage we will encounter in the state of nature.  Because of our natural self-love, individuals have a propensity to overvalue their losses when their rights are violated.  Because individuals have a right to punish violators in the state of nature, this propensity will lead individuals to exact punishment and seek compensation that is excessive. Furthermore, in the state of nature there will be circumstances in which a person can claim that their rights have been violated while lacking the power to punish the offender. What do I do if that oak chest was stolen from me and the thief’s brute force is more powerful than my reasoned objections? These disadvantages demand some solution.

Locke concludes that these disadvantages offer individuals sufficient reason to leave the state of nature. Instead of continuing to assert their executive power and to enforce their natural rights, people in the state of nature enter into a “social contract” in which they give up the “Executive Power of the Law of Nature” and “resign it to the publick” (§88). The commonwealth that individuals establish serves as the executive arbiter of the Law, responsible for adjudicating property claims, punishing violators, and protecting the natural rights of each person who is a member of the community.

Thus, political society emerges as a constructive solution to the problems of persons seeking to secure their natural rights. States act legitimately when they protect the natural rights of those who have contracted together to create this society.  The “fundamental natural Law” that governs the Legislative power of the state is, says Locke, “the preservation of Society, and (as far as will consist with the publick good) of every person in it” (§134).

So let’s connect this summary to minarchism.  Remember that minarcho-libertarians assert that only a limited state can be justified (though recall here that minarchists divide over precisely where the limit line is to be drawn).  I argued in my previous post that minarchism is self-defeating because minarchists offer no libertarian grounds that can justify the actions of the minimalist state.  Locke offers one possible response to this criticism. Like minarchists, Locke argues that protection of property rights is a paramount function of the limited state, and he argues that consent is essential to the state’s legitimacy:

“…The Supream Power cannot take from any Man any part of his Property without his own consent. For the preservation of Property being the end of Government, and that for which Men enter into Society, it necessarily supposes and requires, that the People should have Property, without which they must be suppos’d to lose that be entring into Society, which was the end for which they entered into it, too gross an absurdity for any Man to own.  Men therefore in Society having Property, they have such a right to the goods, which by the Law of the Community are theirs, that no Body hath a right to take their substance, or any part of it from them, without their own consent; without this, they have no Property at all” (§138).

As this paragraph stands, Locke’s argument seems tailor-made for the minarchist position. The minarchist objection to contemporary states, after all, is that they regularly violate the property rights of citizens when they tax them to pay for social welfare benefits, healthcare, and the like. Locke here seems to be arguing that states function legitimately when they safeguard the property rights of citizens who have given up their individual executive power to enforce their rights.  Minarchists also point to the coercive, non-consensual way that the state confiscates the property of taxpayers (i.e. consider once again Citizen X’s objections to the state from earlier posts in this series), so Locke’s claim that consent is essential to the legitimacy of the state at first glance seems to suggest a minarchist response to my criticism: the only actions that are legitimate on the part of the state are those that I consent to.

Has Locke solved the minarchist problem?  I don’t believe that Locke has.  The fact that Locke’s argument is not self-defeating is because Locke is not a libertarian. Or more precisely, the appearance of sympathy between Locke’s argument and minarchism is an illusion; Locke’s arguments depends on two crucial assumptions of Locke’s that most minarchists reject.

First, Locke’s view of consent allows that there are circumstances when states function legitimately against the explicit objections of some community members. For most libertarians when citizen X objects to being taxed his explicit rejection of the tax illustrates that the tax is nonconsensual.  Locke offers up a more layered view of consent in which the implicit consent that individuals express when they leave the state of nature to enter  political community takes priority over their explicit objections in moments when they conflict with the will of the majority. The formation of political community (i.e. what happens when we agree to leave the state of nature) incorporates individuals into a single political body (a “Body Politick”) “wherein the Majority have a Right to act and conclude the rest” (§95).  Locke explicitly rejects the idea that political consent must be tied to the individual wills of each member of the community. Indeed, to require explicit consent of every member would render political communities unstable, fleeting and ineffective:

“For if the consent of the majority shall not in reason, be received, as the act of the whole, and conclude every individual; nothing but the consent of every individual can make any thing to be the act of the whole: But such a consent is next to impossible ever to be had, if we consider the Infirmities of Health, and Avocations of Business, which in a number, though much less than that of a Common-wealth, will necessarily keep many away from the publick Assembly. To which if we add the variety of Opinions and contrariety of Interests, which unavoidably happen in all Collections of Men, the coming into Society upon such terms, would be only like Cato’s coming into the Theatre, only to go out again. Such a Constitution as this would make the mighty Leviathan of a shorter duration, than the feeblest Creatures;…For where the majority cannot conclude the rest, there they cannot act as one Body, and consequently will be immediately dissolved again” (§98).

Thus, when Citizen X objects to being taxed to fund universal police protection and military defense, Locke’s argument suggests a possible response, as follows:

Citizen X: ““I don’t want to submit to your authority.  I’m perfectly willing to purchase my own protection, and I’m more confident that a private personal defense contractor will provide better protective service to me than a bloated, inefficient state.  Further, I object to your demand that I pay taxes to subsidize the cost of the protective services you are providing to others.  If other people want your police protection, make them pay for it.  I see no reason why I must pay so that other people get access to the services you are offering.”

Locke: “No, Citizen X, because you are a member of our community, you have given your implicit consent to this contract that now binds us together. In leaving the state of nature, you have given up your executive power to preserve your natural rights.  There is now a single sovereign responsible for this.  Your explicit objections to paying for police protection and military defense are in conflict with the will of the majority, which agrees that you and other members are obligated to pay for police protection and military defense. We can’t have a political community that is beholden to individual will.  To allow your objection any sway here would make our community impossible to sustain. The consent of the majority is a reflection of your own implicit consent, the basis for our social contract.”

Locke himself insists that governments act legitimately when they tax citizens to pay for the services they provide, and he likewise subsumes individual consent into the consent of the majority:

“‘Tis true, Governments cannot be supported without great Charge, and ’tis fit every one who enjoys his share of the Protection, should pay out of his Estate his proportion for the maintenance of it. But still it must be with his own Consent, i.e. the Consent of the Majority, giving it either by themselves, or their Representatives chosen by them” (§140).

Taking stock of Locke’s argument, readers would do well to anticipate the libertarian pushback against Locke. Locke seems to be saying that my implicit consent to a social contract (a contract that I never explicitly agreed to! This is an imaginary contract! I was born into a political community that I never explicitly chose!) takes priority over my explicit objections to taxation.  He is saying that my membership in my community is a reflection of my implicit consent. One reason for libertarians to be concerned with Locke’s argument is that it implies something about the legitimacy of majorities to enforce policies that are in service to what Locke calls the “publick good,” policies that for some majorities will extend the reach of the state far beyond what minarchists will tolerate.  Locke himself similarly extends his own view of the legitimate function of the state in his “Essay on the Poor Law,” where he suggests that England establish publicly-funded working schools in English parishes responsible for teaching poor children skills that would enable them to become self-sufficient laborers, less dependent on public provision.


Locke’s own defense of something resembling a state-funded system of education for poor children points to a second more interesting facet of Locke’s thought that suggests closer affinity between his position and modern welfare state liberalism than minarchism. I’m indebted to Matt Zwolinski, a contributor at the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog site, for this observation. For Locke the law of nature that is the foundation for individual property rights is the same law that mandates a moral obligation to, in Locke’s words “preserve the rest of Mankind” (§6). The implications of this claim are made more explicit in a passage from Locke’s First Treatise (with credit to Zwolinski for drawing my attention to this quote):

“But we know God hath not left one man so to the mercy of another, that he may starve him if he please: God the Lord and Father of all has given no one of his children such a property in his peculiar portion of the things of this world, but that he has given his needy brother a right to the surplusage of his goods; so that it cannot justly be denied him, when his pressing wants call for it: and therefore no man could ever have a just power over the life of another by right of property in land or possessions; since it would always be a sin, in any man of estate, to let his brother perish for want of affording him relief out of his plenty. As justice gives every man a title to the product of his honest industry, and the fair acquisitions of his ancestors descended to him; so charity gives every man a title to so much out of another’s plenty, as will keep him from extreme want, where he has no means to subsist otherwise: and a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity, to force him to become his vassal, by with-holding that relief, God requires him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and with a dagger at his throat offer him death or slavery” (4.42).

As Zwolinski correctly notes, Locke is not simply saying that it is a good, charitable thing for those who have means to give to those who do not.  Locke is saying that those who are in need have a title to the plenty of another. Says Zwolinski, “He is saying that the needy person has “title” to the rich person’s surplusage – and it’s hard to see how “title” could mean anything short of an enforceable right.  If, then, the purpose of the state is to enforce natural rights, then it looks very much like it will be permissible, perhaps obligatory, for the state to have some redistributive policies.”

This post has gotten long, so I’ll conclude by returning to the question that spurred this post. Does Locke resolve the minarchist problem?  Yes, he does.  Locke justifies the minimalist state by appealing to the implicit consent of citizens who have given up their executive power, a consent that takes priority over their explicit objections when those objections are in conflict with the majority will. But how minimal is Locke’s state, really?  Locke himself defends poor laws that include the public provision of education to poor children, and his view of natural law gives ample reason for justifying this provision as well as other provisions that enforce the title that those in need have on the surplus of the wealthy. If minarchists are willing to join hands with Locke this far, then liberals like me will welcome them to our fold.  The minarchist label seems inaccurate, but we’ll even let them keep it and get it on to the business of discussing the proper limits of this state that has commanded our implicit consent.


On Chess and Virtue

This week I felt inspired to take a break from my libertarianism series.  I’ve been thinking a lot this week about chess.  I love chess.  I can’t remember how old I was when I began to play.  I do remember losing regularly to my dad in elementary school until I picked up a beginning chess strategy book. Before long I was winning most of the time. I still own the portable wooden chess set I received as a Christmas gift many years ago. In junior high I attended chess club every week, hosted by Mr. Johnson, our junior high civics instructor.  “Here comes the power!” he would say when stronger club players would enter the room.  I came in second place my first year in his chess club, winning a computer chess set with gleaming metal pieces. During the summer I would pretend to be an aspiring chess master playing a rated chess match against my computer foe. I attained a small library of chess books. Every school year I would check out from our school library a book of the collected chess games of Bobby Fischer.  I had dreams of one day becoming a chess grandmaster. I looked forward every month to the arrival of my Chess Life magazine. In those pre-internet days the magazine’s arrival in our mailbox would provide the much anticipated update on the Karpov-Kasparov world championship match.  Times have changed.  These days you can watch the world championship match live via an online stream, with unbeatable computer engines providing their live assessments of the game.


For several years I was a member of the United States Chess Federation, and occasionally my dad would drive me to the Pittsburgh Chess Club (1 1/2 hours from my home) to play in their Saturday tournaments. I recall one game in particular, a game in which I drew a won endgame against a player rated 500 points above me. I was disappointed by my failure, and my opponent replayed the endgame with me to show me my mistake. I lost a lot, and I won some. In college I stopped playing regularly, but during my doctoral work I became interested once again in the game. While I’m currently only an intermediate chess player, and while I rarely play in rated events, since 2010 I’ve been an organizer for scholastic chess in Abilene, TX.  Every week I run a chess club at Taylor Elementary School that has almost 60 members. Two years ago I began a second chess club for one of our local Boys and Girls Clubs.  I also direct the annual Abilene Scholastic Chess Tournament, a competition that over the past several years has hosted 60-70 students each year. Yes, I love chess.

Thinking about the elementary chess kids that I spend time with each week, I am reminded of an illustration that Alasdaire MacIntyre employs in his seminal book After Virtue. MacIntyre’s book is a polemic against the state of contemporary moral discourse, which he argues relies on an incoherent set of moral beliefs stemming from our Enlightenment past.  The modern presuppositions we bring to ethics render contemporary societies morally fractured. Moral disagreements abound, and modern enlightened selves employ a moral language without substance, rendering our moral discourse vacuous and sterile. We live in a world that truly is “after virtue.” Against this bleak picture of moral aimlessness and chaos MacIntyre advocates for the recovery of an Aristotelian ethic in which communities embrace moral languages and practices that promote virtues and cultivate character, all oriented toward a shared conception of the Good.


In this blog post I don’t intend to engage the larger argument MacIntyre is making about modernity and morality. Irrespective of the merits of his argument, MacIntyre’s claim that contemporary ethics needs to renew attention to the cultivation of virtue seems valid to me even if one does not share MacIntyre’s pessimistic assessment of modern ethics. I want to assume that MacIntyre is correct in calling for the recovery of virtue and consider the consequent question: how does one cultivate virtue? MacIntyre’s answer is illuminating, and this part of After Virtue helps me make sense of the value of the work I do every week with my chess students. MacIntyre points to “social practices” as the locus for the formation of moral character.  A “practice” is

“any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended” (187).

Practices are those things we do that require dedication, effort, and skill.  The range of activities in human life that qualify as such is broad.  Bricklaying is a practice. Playing football is a practice. Farming is a practice.  So is painting.  So is playing music. How do you cultivate virtue, then?  You cultivate virtue by participating in these sorts of practices.

Furthermore, each one of these practices can be associated with two types of goods: extrinsic and intrinsic.  Extrinsic goods are those things that we attain through the practice that can be attained in alternative ways.  If I play football, for example, a college might see fit to give me a scholarship to play for their teams. Or perhaps I will earn a lot of money when a professional football team contracts with me to be their quarterback. The scholarship funds I receive or the money I earn or  are both extrinsic goods.  The money is not essentially connected to the practice (i.e. I could play football in my backyard and receive no money or scholarship at all. I could also earn money or receive a scholarship in other ways). By contrast, intrinsic goods are those things that are internal to the practice itself, goods that can be attained only by participating in the practice.  If I want to become an excellent football player, for example, I can’t simply read about football.  I won’t become an excellent football player by playing Madden on the XBox (though I might become an excellent player of the Madden football game if I give enough time to that activity).  No, to become an excellent football player I need to play football. The practice is integral to realizing the good in question.

So what does all of this have to do with chess? In the context of his discussion of extrinsic and intrinsic goods, MacIntyre uses chess as an example to illustrate the importance of this distinction:

“Consider the example of a highly intelligent seven-year-old child whom I wish to teach to play chess, although the child has no particular desire to learn the game. The child does however have a very strong desire for candy and little chance of obtaining it. I therefore tell the child that if the child will play chess with me once a week I will give the child 50 cents worth of candy; moreover I tell the child that I will always play in such a way that it will be difficult, but not impossible, for the child to win and that, if the child wins, the child will receive an extra 50 cents of candy. Thus motivated the child plays and plays to win. Notice, however that, so long as it is the candy alone which provides the child with a good reason for playing chess, the child has no reason not to cheat and every reason to cheat, provided he or she can do so successfully. But, so we may hope, there will come a time when the child will find in those goods specific to chess, in the achievement of a certain highly particular kind of analytical skill, strategic imagination and competitive intensity, a new set of reasons, reasons now not just for winning on a particular occasion, but for trying to excel in whatever way the game of chess demands. Now if the child cheats, he or she will be defeating not me, but himself or herself” (188).

Playing chess is a practice too, and what I find most meaningful about organizing scholastic chess is that it affords me the opportunity to do ethics, not simply study it.  Every week I participate in the gritty, sometimes mundane, practical work of cultivating character among the girls and boys I am given the opportunity to work with. In teaching kids how to play chess, I don’t want them to simply want to win.  I want them to pursue excellence, to develop the attention and habits of mind essential to playing chess well.  That might sound abstract and ethereal, but the day-to-day things that one must do to cultivate these qualities of character are not.

Every September a sizable group of second graders make their way to chess club for this first time.  Most of them have never played chess.  Over the first few weeks they learn the rules of chess, and eventually they begin to play. They move pieces around the board with reckless abandon, with no apparent aim or reason behind the chaotic mess they leave in their wake. Disinterested in the finer points of chess strategy, some of my students feel it necessary to grant some of their pieces special powers.  “It’s Harry Potter Chess!” said one of my students some years ago when trying to describe the strange happenings between him and his opponent, who apparently had either forgotten or lost interest in the basic rules of chess. During their first semester in club, illegal moves are par for the course.

No, Brady, you never capture your opponents king.

No, Claire, your king is in check. You need to get out of check.”

“No, Ian, that’s a stalemate, not a checkmate.”

No, Alexandra, your board is set up wrong.  White square is always on the right corner.  The Queen always begins the game on her own color.”

They lose a lot. Sometimes they cry, and some of them have a hard time sitting down for an entire game of chess.

They keep coming to club.

Late in the fall we begin working on basic chess strategy.  Students practice some simple one-move checkmates.  We talk about the importance of developing your pieces in the opening, controlling the center of the board, and winning exchanges.  They keep playing. Some of the kids keep losing, and the new members who don’t lose quite often end up stalemating positions that they will win with more practice.  We talk about how to win well and lose well (“Shake your opponent’s hand.  Thank your opponent for the game.  Don’t cry.  Don’t rub it in when you win.”). Through the Fall and early Spring students participate in a regular season club tournament. In March we begin the March Madness club championship, a double-elimination tournament that concludes with the crowning of a club champion. By the end of the Spring most of the students have improved to some degree, some of them remarkably so.


They keep coming to club.

And some of them keep coming back for four years.  By the time they get into fifth grade, my veteran players–those same kids that lost every game in second grade and couldn’t stop crying–are not only winning games regularly but are modeling for the kids who’ve come behind them how to win and lose well.   Keep playing chess for four years in a club organized around a commitment to practicing the goods intrinsic to chess, and you’ll leave that club a different person. Stick with chess long enough, you might even become an excellent–that is, a virtuous–chess player.

Ten years into my academic career, I love my job. I count myself very fortunate to be in a career and working at a university where I continue to find my day-to-day life invigorating and my labor meaningful.  I know that there are many (too many!) people in this world who do not have this luxury.  That said, there are days when I feel that the time I spend with my young chess students, standing over a 64-square board and discussing such simple things as forks, skewers, double checks, and fianchettos will have more lasting impact than that journal article that will soon be published to be read by a handful of scholars in my field.

I need to wrap this post up.  My chess students beckon.