Version 1

I am not going to copy all of Mike’s work here, so the reader should probably take a look at the NLF before advacing into the body of the argument. Also, this text is expected to evolve in the future. Don’t expect it to have a final say on NLF any time soon…

Following communication with Mike, I’ve both decided to start a version history of the document, and put any mail relevant to the revisions up for public reading.

Specific sections and claims in the NLF

Libertarians fail to consider the bigger picture

Many libertarian arguments are like fundamentalist arguments: they depend upon restricting your attention to a very narrow field so that you will not notice that they fail outside of that field. For example, fundamentalists like to restrict the argument to the bible. Libertarians like to restrict the argument to their notions of economics, justice, history, and rights and their misrepresentations of government and contracts. Widen the scope, and their questionable assumptions leap into view. […]

This is a frequent counter‐argument to most political ideologies not one’s own. Most people use it when they feel that their chosen values are not being taken into consideration in a debate. And as Mike points out elsewhere in NLF, libertarian ideas or values are neither widely known nor generally accepted. It follows that people arguing with libertarians often make this claim. I feel the best way to come into terms with this sort of objection is to discuss one’s values and presuppositions openly and to try and establish a level playing field before entering into debate proper.

Beyond the gut reaction, however, I cannot agree with Mike’s comment. It is true that us libertarians have to use an extraordinary amount of time explaining the basics of our ideology and worldview, but once discussion moves past the premises, I would contend that libertarians in the average take into account a far wider spectrum of societal issues than e.g. most elected officials. After all, the idea that governmental decision processes commonly neglect the aggregate cost of market interventions to the society as a whole is central to the libertarian weariness towards centralized government. One could not sustain such an objection if one wasn’t able to look at the bigger picture. Libertarians are often rationalists as well, so I think that getting into a fair debate with an average libertarian should be considerably easier than, say, with a creationist.

Libertarian rhetoric as evangelism

Evangelists (those trying to persuade others to adopt their beliefs) generally have extensively studied which arguments have the greatest effect on the unprepared. Usually, these arguments are brief propositions that can be memorized easily and regurgitated in large numbers. These arguments, by the process of selection, tend not to have obvious refutations, and when confronted by a refutation, the commonest tactic is to recite another argument. This eliminates the need for actual understanding of the basis of arguments, and greatly speeds the rate at which evangelists can be trained.

Absolutely. Even if I try to avoid regurgitating libertarian one‐liners absent a proper understanding of how to defend them, I freely admit that I’ve engaged in what Mike describes here. It’s called good PR, something which is absolutely essential to people trying to get their point across. As a matter of fact, digests, one‐liners and quotations are especially important to a libertarian as the underlying libertarian theory often deserves a treatise longer than anybody in e.g. a newsgroup would care to follow. I can’t see what is wrong with using a measure of sheer rhetoric even in a rational debate, to speed things along.

However, there is a stronger objection to Mike’s comment. If we envision the Net or the conventional public sphere as battlegrounds for memes, the best ones win. If a particular libertarian slogan is powerful enough to convince hoardes of people in one fell swoop (a rare occurrence), maybe one should give the idea the merit it is due? I doubt ideas which are patently false could ever gain enough force to propagate very widely…

The original intent of the US Founding Fathers

Not to mention that original intent (or original understanding) is just as open to interpretation as the Constitution itself because while there is lots of explicit data, it is from many contradictory sources.

The problem is, if such great discrepancies were to be found in the Founders’ opinions, how ever did they manage to Found anything? The fact is, the US has come to exist, as a sort of compromise between the Founders’ views. The compromise that has lead to the founding of the nation is what is being described when libertarians talk about the intent of the Founders. The claim is that this compromise was basically a moderate libertarian one.

I think the best way to interpret the Constitution is the way the founders explicitly specified in the Constitution: look to the courts, especially the Supreme Court. The Constitution leaves the method of its interpretation by the court entirely to the court to decide.

To the degree that laws exist, they must be interpreted by some authority, yes. The problem is, this sort of argument neglects the possibility of systematic, willful misinterpretation. Libertarians claim that the government, and with it the Supreme Court, has both the means and the motivation to commit precisely such a deed. The question is, have they? I would have to put forth a cautious yes on this one.

Even if there are tons of hazy historical and legal issues here, there are also quite a number of examples where the Supreme Court has ruled measures constitutional which practically fly on the face of the Founders’ text. One such example is the increasing regulation under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution—if one looks at the early cases involving the Commerce Clause, one sees a consistent widening of the scope of the Commerce Clause from simply granting the congress a right to tear down inter‐state trade barriers, to giving it the power to regulate arbitrary inter‐state business, to finally granting the legislature an open licence to regulate anything that has ever had even the slightest influence on inter‐state commerce. The Commerce Clause is in fact so broadly interpreted nowadays that most of the Constitution is actually just legislative deadweight; under the current interpretation, the Commerce Clause alone would make the congress practically omnipotent. If the Constitution was meant to grant the federal government only limited powers, this particular interpretation must simply go against its purpose. If no such limitations were meant, however, why would the Constitution exist in the first place? Britain doesn’t have one, for instance…

The US Government ignores the plain meaning of the Constitution.

Often this is presented as The US wouldn’t be so bad if the government followed the Constitution.

Plain meaning is a matter of opinion. A plain meaning one century can well be reversed in another, depending on popular usage, historical context, etc. Well intentioned people can disagree on plain meaning endlessly, as we see in any non‐unanimous court decision. For practical purposes, the meaning MUST be decided one way or another.

Even if interpretations must change, one could not for instance interpret a prohibition on killing people first as meaning nobody can be killed without governmental authorization, and then as meaning nothing at all when the government authorizes all killing. Certain things simply fly against all common sense, and should not be attempted in a civil society. These are precisely the aspects of the Constitution libertarians mean by plain meaning.

The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration Of Independence is a rhetorical document, without legal standing in the USA.

Of course. But just as the Federalist Papers Mike quotes above this comment, that too is a valuable aid in fleshing out what precisely it was that the US was originally founded on.

Libertarians as freedom‐lovers

The foremost defenders of our freedoms and rights, which libertarians prefer you overlook, are our governments.

Indeed. Just look at North Korea. Furthermore, even if the government does protect us from violent crime and the like, it in no way follows that everything that, or indeed most of what, the government does is consistent with the principle of individual freedom.

Lots of other organizations (many of which you would not want to be associated with, such as Scientologists) also fight for freedom and rights. I prefer the ACLU.

That’s very nice indeed, being that most of what the ACLU does is, simply put, to defend libertarian values.

Taxes are theft

The first is that property is theft. The notion behind property is that A declares something to be property, and threatens anybody who still wants to use it. Where does A get the right to forcibly stop others from using it? Arguments about mixing of labor with the resource as a basis for ownership boil down to first‐come‐first‐served. This criticism is even accepted by some libertarians, and is favorably viewed by David Friedman. This justifies property taxes or extraction taxes on land or extractable resources if you presume that the government is a holder in trust for natural resources.

Actually this does not follow. What follows instead is the unsustainable left‐anarchist assumption of no property rights whatsoever, regardless of whether the owner is the government or not. In other words, it follows that the government cannot restrict use, even use without paying taxes.

Sure, this reasoning does not lead to a first come, first served economy. It does lead to to an economy without private property, though, and a one with no governmental claim on anything material. I don’t think either libertarians or Mike would argue for such a state of affairs.

The second is that taxation is part of a social contract. Essentially, tax is payment in exchange for services from government.

The problem with social contracts is that they can be used to arrive at a justification to completely arbitrary government practices, including genocide and mass oppression of people by a minority—after all, by Mike’s token those are just paid‐for services provided for by the government, not?

My main objection, though, is that in order to have a social contract, one needs to have a society. Its existence presupposes assent by the participants. Hence the right to secede from the society and, thus, the right to withdraw from a social contract.

Many libertarians accept social contract (for example, essentially all minarchists must to insist on a monopoly of government.)

Whoever gave Mike this idea? It is not necessary to believe in a social contract if the monopoly of violence is taken as an axiom or derived on utilitarian grounds.

I for instance am a minarchist, but have a hard time coping with contracts I haven’t willingly consented to. My own reasoning in this case is a utilitarian one, and is based on the idea that markets cannot function without the enforcement of rights. When libertarians base their arguments on the benefits of contractual obligation, they usually assume the contracts are rational and effectively enforced. Neither rationality nor bindingness apply to contracts prevailing in the economy between protection agencies. From this it then follows that in order to use economics to build the rest of the libertarian case, one first needs a minarchy to enforce the basic rights.

The Men with Guns

If you don’t pay your taxes, men with guns will show up at your house, initiate force and put you in jail.

This is not initiation of force. It is enforcement of contract, in this case an explicit social contract.

This is an excellent argument in favor of not recognizing certain forms of contracts. The main flaw with this argument is that the contract is enforced even when it clearly fails the criteria of consensuality and due consideration.

Besides, why can’t I contract with another state on its terms without moving to that state? Why can’t I and my libertarian friends set up a virtual libertarian government, invite every libertarian in the world to contract with it instead, and have a cybersociety of happy, non‐tax paying libertarians all over the globe?

Signing the social contract

There are several explicit means by which people make the social contract with government. The commonest is when your parents choose your residency and/or citizenship after your birth. In that case, your parents or guardians are contracting for you, exercising their power of custody.

Few libertarians would say that parents have absolute rights to contract on behalf of their children. For instance, selling a child to slavery usually isn’t seen as a valid form of contract, binding on the child. I just hope Mike isn’t arguing that it should be. If not, subservience to a state isn’t very far removed from slavery…

Immigrants, residents, and visitors contract through the oath of citizenship (swearing to uphold the laws and Constitution), residency permits, and visas.

This argument is likely tenable, if we assume that the government is a person in the legal sense. (I usually don’t. I don’t think corporate persons are generally a good idea, either.) However, if one enters the country illegally, no such contract is formed. In order for the the restaurant example, next, to apply, the government would have to own its territory, something which is extremely difficult to show to be the case without assuming it. Further, if one of those people born into the country who aren’t by the above bound by the contract grants an outsider the right to enter, and this is possible without stepping on governmentally owned land, even the property owner argument will not work to prohibit this.

Some libertarians make a big deal about needing to actually sign a contract. Take them to a restaurant and see if they think it ethical to walk out without paying because they didn’t sign anything.

The fuss about signing is actually less about signing than it is about willful consent. We see this in the fact that few courts would uphold a contract supposedly formed when a person unknowingly steps into a restaurant of the described kind. A contract is a contract when both parties have understood its content and agreed to abide by it. Even the fact that we currently use written, signed paper documents for objective post facto verification of the existence of a contract is peripheral to the nature of contracts—they are part of the enforcement of contracts, not of contracts per se. What is lacking with the so called social contract, then, is voluntary bilateral agreement on the terms.

Are social contracts unique?

The social contract is like no other because it can be unilaterally modified.

Not true.

Mike is absolutely right, here. What is different about a social contract is not that it can be unilaterally modified, but the fact that there has been no willful consent to the contract itself. But the latter part does make the willful consent point doubly strong: if you’re signing what is essentially the civil liberties equivalent of a blanc cheque, surely you must have the option of turning the deal down?

Equality in social contracts

Some complain that the social contract is fundamentally unjust because it doesn’t treat people equally, that people are taxed unequally or receive services unequally. So? Like insurance, rates can vary from individual to individual, and services received may be more or less than premiums paid.

Ah, but in insurance business competition takes care of price discrimination, and causes the expected benefits to settle to a sum approximately equal to the price paid (plus expenses, plus a share of the transaction costs from trouble like moral hazard and the like, minus interest). No such thing happens with governments, because they do not compete on a free market, and so severe price discrimination can result. This is of course one of the fundamental reasons governmental monopolies are seen as bad in libertarian thought: they tend to produce less goods for the money, and lead to suboptimal generation of general welfare.

Some complain Any contract where the enforcing agency is one of the contractors is hardly fair. But the U.S. Constitution is a contract between SEVERAL parties: the three branches of the government, the states, and citizens.

In this case the question is, does this arrangement work? Do the checks and balances hold? Libertarians would of course say no. The reason is that the interests of the three branches of government coincide against the people, and the government holds the tools of violence. Hence, oppression of the people by their own government.

Some people would say this cannot happen, as the people constitute the government. The trouble is, this does not follow. The same basic mechanism which plays people’s interests against another to stop them from forming organized crime families can also be used to deny them the opportunity of stopping governmental abuse—this is an instance of the Tragedy of the Commons, where organization would pay off but where transactions costs are too high for it to occur in practice.

Why leave an apartment if you change your mind about the lease? You do not own the apartment, just as you do not own the nation. At most, you may own some property within the apartment, just as you may own some property within the nation.

So, at the very least you do not have to obey the rules having to do with any property inside the apartment?

Mike’s argument is flawed in two ways. The first is that the government does not own its territory, the second is that the owner of a piece of property may not have absolute control over it. As I’m a minarchist, those limitations become distinctly different from what Mike proposes when he argues for rights as recognized by the state: if we limit all corporate persons out of the picture, only individuals can own real estate. In this case, the state can never have a claim on anything on its territory.

Volition and the social contract

Most libertarians have a peculiar definition of voluntary: contractual agreement makes all requirements of the contract "voluntary", no matter how unexpected they are, no matter how long the contract lasts for, no matter if the contractee changes his mind. However, they’re seldom willing to view our social contract in that manner.

Most contracts have unintended consequences, just as most bets do. If one is willing to make a promise based on future expectations, one must be willing to bear the consequences. In most cases these are tolerable. In some, they are not. That’s what an honest promise is all about. Libertarian contracts are nothing more.

As for social contracts, nobody ever agreed to such a one. This might seem redundant by this point, but it’s fundamental enough to be reiterated. A contract is not a contract if it is not voluntary, and the social contract is not.

Love it or leave it?

For example, let’s say you live in a condominium, and are very fond of it. As long as you can move out, you have a choice. No matter how firmly you intend to stay. No matter how much you prefer your current condo. No matter how good or bad your current condo is for you, you still have a choice.

If one likens this example to living in a nation, being born into it must then be voluntary just like renting a condominium is. But it isn’t. Hence, Mike’s point is moot.

You have at least 4 choices.

  1. Tolerate the social contract, and perhaps try to amend it.
  2. Leave it by emigrating.
  3. Violate it.
  4. Revolt.

Considering the alternatives, Mike is probably advocating rebellion. But that is sedition. In the 911 aftermath, that sort of thing doesn’t really fly. Please incarcerate Mike Huben. And was there some talk about torturing the suspects if nothing else helps? Mike couldn’t have anything against that, being that that is part of the social contract he apparently signed…

Libertarian nations

We can’t emigrate because there is no libertarian nation.

Yes, you can emigrate, just as you could buy a different car even though your favorite company doesn’t produce cars which let you travel at the speed of sound and get 2000 mpg. Even if nobody produces EXACTLY what you want, you can choose any car the market produces or you create yourself.

Current nations do stop libertarian ones from forming. When this is the case, Mike’s example boils down to if people die upon making proper cars, you’d better do without one.

This is the basic point of minarchists, as opposed to anarcho‐capitalists: coercion is something one cannot leave to the market to decide the use of. If the market produces coercion, it does not function properly. Hence, Mike is making a market‐based argument starting from a misbehaving market, and so arrives at the wrong conclusion.

The Mafia protection racket

Extortion by the state is no different than extortion by the Mafia.

This is a prize piece of libertarian rhetoric, because it slides in the accusation that taxation is extortion. This analogy initially seems strong, because both are territorial. However, libertarians consider contractual rental of land by owners (which is also fundamentally territorial) ethical, and consider coercion of squatters by those owners ethical. The key difference is who owns what. The Mafia doesn’t own anything to contract about.

How’s that? Mike never stops to consider that the precise reasons used to argue that the government has such territorial rights apply en force to the Mafia.

Right to govern territory

There’s no such thing as rights to govern territory!

You’d have to ignore an awful lot of history to claim this sort of PROPERTY didn’t exist.

Here Mike is absolutely right, of course. Rights to govern territory are a clear subset of owner’s more general rights to his property. However, libertarians of different varieties can come up with a number of objections:

  • Only legal persons can own land or territorial rights. The state is not a legal person, since if it was, the laws it passes would apply equally to itself. They clearly don’t. This is part of the more general libertarian though‐pattern of largely equating corporate persons and states with individuals as far as moral considerations go.
  • Ownership of land usually accrues from homesteading and subsequent transfer of rights. States cannot have transferred such rights to the US federal government since they didn’t have them in the first place—those who did the homesteading haven’t explicitly transferred any governance rights to the states. (That they didn’t object to what the states were doing does not prove assent.)
  • Moreover, no verifiable papertrail on the rights exists.
  • Treaties and purchases have been made with stolen money in the first place. They are poisoned. They should be given back to the original owners, along with damages collected from the state.
  • Conquest isn’t a valid way of acquiring property, either. Or do I have the right to conquer Mike’s apartment at any time?
  • Clearly documented bequeathment would be valid, but is rare enough to be inexistent.

It’s not your property!

Why should I be told what to do with my property? That infringes on my rights of ownership.

This question comes up rather often, since absolute ownership of property is fundamental to most flavors of libertarianism. Such propertarianism fuels daydreams of being able to force the rest of the world to swirl around the immovable rock of your property. For example, there were trespass lawsuits filed against airlines for flying over property.

Few libertarians would argue that ownership of land extends to the airspace above it, or indeed the natural resources under it. Neither Lockean land tenure nor Coasian rights allocation arguments lead to that conclusion.

It is another question, then, whether anyone using those resources can actually do so without incurring liabilities on himself—you cannot dig on another’s property without his consent, and perhaps you cannot even risk airplane crashes in another’s property without offering compensation in the form of an agreed upon rent or full insurance coverage for the possible damages.

A good answer is: what makes you so sure it is yours?

Of course it’s my property. I paid money and hold the deed.

What do you hold the deed to? Property as recognized by a government. As such, you can address infringement of your rights through the legal system. However your property as recognized by the legal system is limited.

Once again we need to think what this sort of relative argument would mean if applied a bit more broadly. Is Mike saying that genocide is perfectly fine if it’s just voted on, first?

Quite a number of libertarians believe in a basic code of morality independent of what the standing law is, that is, natural rights. If the legal system refuses to enforce those rights, the right to property being one of them, it’s the legal system that is flawed. This has no bearing on whether the rights exist; at most it means they are not being properly enforced.

The real catch is that Mike’s own argument for territorial governance rights hinges on the same assumption. Following Mike’s reasoning, before the state is born, there can be no governance rights since nobody is enforcing them. Hence, those rights cannot be transferred to the state being born.

Maybe rights are limited, but new limitations are Evil

New limitations on use of property are a taking, and should be compensated.

Some new limitations can be viewed as merely making specific that what was claimed was never really owned. For example, where was ownership of airspace above property ever explicitly granted in our system of property? Where were polluters ever explicitly granted the right to dump wastes into air or water that they do not have a title to?

The problem is, if one makes a contract, one has to know what it entails. Making something specific after the fact isn’t an option. If those easements and limitations are not spelled out at the time of transfer of the property, they do not exist. This by the way is one of the reasons libertarians talk about the original intent of the Founders: if we assume Mike’s framework of governance rights, those rights cannot change at all beyond the first transfer of government‐owned land. (Unless, of course, all land has been transfered to a nation’s residents under the explicit condition of one‐sided modifiability of the contract. No such explicit limitation can be found in the US Constitution, or indeed elsewhere.)

Most libertarians would recognize the right of a mall owner to write his leases so that he could terminate them if the renters cause externalities: why shouldn’t communities have this right to self‐ governance as well?

Because the community does not own anything.

Taxes make you poor

Think how much wealthier we’d be if we didn’t pay taxes.

This is a classic example of libertarians not looking at the complete equation for at least two reasons.

  1. If taxes are eliminated, you’ll need to purchase services that were formerly provided by government.
  2. If taxes are eliminated, the economics of wages have changed, and wages will change as well.

Mike gets it right, here. I too think that many libertarians make far too extensive claims about the direct benefits of abolishing taxes. However, this does not mean that the benefits of uniform, lower tax rates from a very limited number of wide base taxes would not be extensive. There are a number of reasons:

  • The government produces services people would not buy if they had the choice. It can be argued that over half of what the government produces falls squarely in this category, what with the Drug and Terrorism Wars, Federal Registers expanding at a rate of hundreds of pages per day, and all the other common prohibitions, codes and regulations.
  • Stopping the production of useless goods and dismantling the bureaucracy would bring a lot of productive potential to the market, both in the form of newly freed capital and labour. This would allow a considerably, though one‐time, increase in the GNP.
  • The majority of the good things that the government produces consists of purely private goods, which would be produced with considerably heightened efficiency were they put on the free market.
  • Mike’s first argument neglects the fact that governmentally produced goods are available to people more or less equally, and so people cannot control the relative amounts of the goods they get. They pay a fixed tax‐price, and get a fixed bundle of products. Even if the total price paid after privatization stayed exactly the same, this increased freedom of choice would constitute a notable net benefit.
  • The benefits of broadened choice and larger cash flows through individuals’ hands would extend directly to investments as well. In the long term this would mean faster economic growth as investments would now better go where they’re needed. This effect is likely to swamp any direct benefits in a mere couple of decades.

The US was once libertarian

We lived in a fairly libertarian society in the US 150 years ago.

[…] Yes, the Federal government had a much lighter hand then. However, state and local governments had a much greater influence. There is not one class of positive duty or obligation in the US today that did not exist 200 years ago at state or federal level.

True enough. That is something one must never forget. However, those duties were situated at the state or municipal levels, which means the resources were likely used more efficiently, and that there was probably more choice as to how you could live within the US as a whole.

As a matter of fact, things got much better when powers of states were interpreted to be restricted by the US constitution (much later.)

Absolutely. From the viewpoint of libertarians, the US was founded precisely to restrict state authority over people’s lives, not much more. It worked wonders. Now the state is again expanding, however. Wouldn’t it be better to take the route we know works, instead of trying out statist measures which are known not to work?

Government of that era would be as out‐of‐place today as the tarriffs and scientific knowledge of that era.

So what precisely is it that forces the US of today to have a War on Drugs, to aspire to a world‐police status, or to offer the phenomenally inefficient public healthcare it does? (If I remember correctly, the US public healthcare arrangements lead to approximately thrice the per capita public outlay on healthcare as compared to Finland, for an objectively worse standard of care.)

Might makes right as the basis of statism

No, "Might makes ability to make something", Right or Wrong. You can’t even try for Right until you have Might to back it up in the real world. That’s the reason that some real governments have survived and all utopian governments that have tried to abolish force have failed.

Sure. That just means libertarians better start arming themselves. Certain people need killing. Is this approach so very much better than the principle of non‐initiation of violence advocated by libertarians?

Property is just as "involuntary" as the social contract. There is no moral obligation for anyone to respect your property: only a practical one.

From a libertarian point of view, property itself isn’t based on might, only the enforcement of property rights is. If this weren’t so, why would we have morality at all? The precise same argument can be made against each and every moral obligation one can think of.

Self‐government vs. other‐government

I want self‐government, not other‐government.

Self government is libertarian newspeak for everybody ought to be able to live as if they are the only human in the universe, if only they believe in the power of libertarianism.

This is a common misunderstanding, and is not sustainable in the light of libertarian theory. After all, the basic aim of libertarianism is to define a circle of individual rights which is maximal with respect to the similar set of rights of other people. This is in stark contrast with the thoroughly anarchical conception of liberty Mike describes above. In fact even libertarian anarcho‐capitalists usually agree with this; they just think these rights are better (and more morally) enforced by private protection agencies.

Much as we would like to be free of such regulation, most people also want to be able to regulate the behavior of others for practical reasons. Some libertarians claim that they want the first so much, that they will be willing to forgo the second. Most other people feel that both are necessary (and that it would be hypocritical or stupid to want just one.)

What can one say to an argument like this? Most people can be wrong, after all. They will be, too, if it’s in their interests as individuals. E.g. public choice demonstrates that this is indeed the case.

Put your money where your mouth is

Yet libertarians want us to risk what many of them consider the best nation in the world with their untested beliefs. […] Let libertarians bear the risk and cost of their own experiment.

They are quite willing to. Why can’t they secede on their property within the current US borders, then?

If libertarians are too inept to compete internationally through diplomacy, politics, bribery, or force of arms, it hardly takes a conspiracy to explain that they lost. That’s what sovereignty takes.

Again there are both moral and practical issues, here. I’m quite sure libertarians worldwide could muster enough force to kill their way to independence. After all, who’s got better incentive to participate in such a project than drug cartels, unconventional weapons enthusiasts, wealthy people in need of a tax haven and the like? The problem is, libertarians would be betraying their principles if they used such measures. Perhaps Mike things that two wrongs can make a right. Libertarians by and far don’t.

The practical problem is that it takes a certain critical mass of people and resources, plus at least a couple of decades of time, to build a nation from the scratch. Besides, just about any libertarian nation I can envision would be largely dependent upon trade. Hence, seclusion by other nations is a big problem until the libertarian one is fully developed.

Initiation of force

Like most other non‐pacifistic belief systems, libertarians want to initiate force for what they identify as their interests and call it righteous retaliation, and use the big lie technique to define everything else as evil "initiation of force". They support the initial force that has already taken place in the formation of the system of property, and wish to continue to use force to perpetuate it and make it more rigid.

Ah, but that’s really the essence of homesteading: property forms when you take as yours something not already owned. Since there is no prior claim on the property, there can be no initiation of violence, here. However, when you try to take something already owned, you do initiate violence. I fear Mike needs to think about this asymmetry a bit more.

Enforcement of slavery

Dred Scott and the Fugitive Slave Laws were examples of government enforcement of slavery.

No. There’s a subtle distinction: they were enforcement of property rights of slaveowners. It was entirely the owners’ assertion that he was property that the government was acting upon. If the owner had at any time freed him, he would not have been a slave.

So, by the same token, if I say Mike needs killing and the government agrees to execute him, I’m the only one guilty of the killing? That is really just one instance of the famous Nüremberg defense: I’m innocent; I was told to do it. War criminals do not get off the hook that easily. Neither does the government, which has a distinct moral obligation not to enforce immoral laws.

The Nolan test

This libertarian quiz asks a set of leading questions to tempt you to proclaim yourself a libertarian.

Let’s look at the current WSPQ questions to see if they’re really as leading as Mike says they are. There are two sets of five questions. Ten yes answers classifies one as a libertarian. The first set measures commitment to individual freedom in the current, human rights sense:

  • Military service should be voluntary. (No draft)
  • Government should not control radio, TV, the press or the Internet.
  • Repeal regulations on sex for consenting adults.
  • Drug laws do more harm than good. Repeal them.
  • People should be free to come and go across borders; to live and work where they choose.

The second set gauges the individuals commitment to economic freedom. This is separate as it’s usual treated such in the body of contemporary political theory.

  • Businesses and farms should operate without govt. subsidies.
  • People are better off with free trade than with tariffs.
  • Minimum wage laws cause unemployment. Repeal them.
  • End taxes. Pay for services with user fees.
  • All foreign aid should be privately funded.

Now, I’m not sure what Mike classifies as leading but I’m having a hard time seeing the above as such. The questions are short, simple enough to be almost naïve, they are easy to understand and they seem to be statistically efficient in picking American political ideologies apart. AFAICT, more than one of the questions is likely to provoke strong reactions both ways. I’d say Mike is overreacting in his comments.

The most obvious criticism of this quiz is that it tries to graph the range of politics onto only 2 axes, as if they were the only two that mattered, rather than the two libertarians want the most change in. For example, if socialists were to create such a test, they would use a different set of axes.

Mike forgets that the Nolan chart was originally created as a simple substitute for the common left‐right political axis. More than two axes hardly serves the purpose. Besides, the test does seem to pick social‐democrats apart quite effectively, too!

Quotations and commentary

Government, like fire, is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.

Well, if we wish to use that analogy, let’s note that we now exploit combustion for vastly more purposes, in vastly greater quantity, and for vastly greater benefit than George Washington would have dreamed of. Likewise modern liberal government.

If only Mike didn’t forget the trouble we’re getting from the government (and not internal combustion) he would pretty much be making the libertarian point for us. Fire remains a servant, while the government has indeed become a master.

Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.

Did men make laws to support or suppress life, liberty, and property? At first glance, since we like those three glittering generalities, we’d say support. But if we change the generalities and keep the logic the same:

Death, enslavement, and indigence do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that death, enslavement, and indigence existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.

Now we’d say suppress. The fact is, this ringing statement can be interpreted to praise or damn law supporting or suppressing any generality.

Well, yes, Bastiat was an intelligent man. He assumed people would know that laws exist to support the institutions he mentions. People seem to interpret the latter quote correctly, as well. Against these assumptions, both quotes are perfectly valid claims. Does Mike really think this sort of rhetoric has to spell every self‐evident detail out in order to be valid?

But the real source of rights is might.

Libertarians by and far do not believe this. Might is needed to enforce rights, but rights do exist otherwise as well. Otherwise, why would we have the things called ethics and morality? In a world of might alone those would be superfluous at best.

A man is none the less a slave because he is allowed to choose a new master once in a term of years.

When you contract for government services, you are a customer, not a slave. If you think you cannot change with whom you contract, you have enslaved your self.

Well, under this logic it should be possible to be born into this world and not be subject to further coercion if one decides not to contract with the government.

Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.

[…] If libertarians want to adopt this position (as some do), they’d be better off supporting it with something more than an appeal to the inconsistent authority of Jefferson.

So Mike is arguing that one cannot quote a nice idea from a historical figure without endorsing everything else he once said? I’ve always thought of quotations as being without context, and having very little to do with appeals to authority. In this case, the quotation is sound, and the implicit criticism it presents in isolation is nearly irrefutable. What can you say, it’s a serviceable libertarian quote.

Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.

To say that governments are evil is on a par with saying that humans are evil. To claim that it is a necessary evil is on a par with saying that cars are a necessary evil. What we are really talking about are subjective preferences which may or may not be satisfied, not some theological notion of right and wrong.

Indeed. When libertarians use this particular line, they are simply acknowledging their preferences in the words of a famous historical person. Nothing wrong with that.

We have constructed a government that is jointly owned by all, because private ownership gives too much incentive for profit through coercion of others.

Which is, in a nutshell, why there are libertarian minarchists like myself.

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the Public Treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the Public Treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy always followed by dictatorship.

However, we could make a pretty good case that voters in the US have always known that they could vote themselves benefits from the Public Treasury. Indeed, it’s been done pretty often. Yet we’ve lasted 200+ years.

True. A strong nation can tolerate an amount of corruption. The argument could be made that Italian have lasted quite a while in the presence of the Mafia. This doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be a lot better off in its absence.

Unlike the Athenian Republic, in the USA the money in the Public Treasury comes directly from the pockets of the majority, the middle class. This might be the most significant deterrent to loose fiscal policy.

Apparently Mike does not know that in the US, the middle class is the largest net beneficiary of the public economy.

I shall choose friends among men, but neither slaves nor masters.

Did Ayn Rand pay her taxes out of friendship then? That’s a new one on me.

Perhaps Ayn should have shot the collector instead?

As Mike said before might does not make right, but it does make for both good and evil possibilities. When confronted with a government exploiting its considerable might for the worse, it’s only rational not to get killed trying to do the right thing. This doesn’t mean Ayn would have paid her taxes as willingly had she been given a real choice.

Liberals want the government to be your Mommy. Conservatives want government to be your Daddy. Libertarians want it to treat you like an adult.

Libertarians want to kill mommy and daddy so that they can stay up later and buy more ice cream than they can now.

Might not be such a bad idea if mommy and daddy insist on putting you to bed before nine and don’t let you eat your ice cream in peace, when you’re in your fourties.

Mob rule isn’t any prettier merely because the mob calls itself a government.

The presumption that the US government is the equivalent of mob rule is ludicrous. The assertion that libertarian anarchy would be better is unsupported by real examples. (Libertarian minarchy doesn’t change the form of government from mob rule.)

Let me get this right. If your government is stopped from doing mob‐like things, it’s still an example of mob rule? Government limited this way is what us minarchists try to achieve. We can always debate whether the task is unrealistic, but if it isn’t, the result as I see it is pretty far removed from mob rule.

It ain’t charity if you are using someone else’s money.

Almost all charitable organizations use other people’s money.

Which is given to them voluntarily. If I socialized Mike’s wallet, would it be alright to if I subsequently gave it to charity?

Their real point is that the money used for government social programs is coerced (libertarian newspeak for taxes). What they overlook is that, in many philosophical and religious systems (including Judaism and Islam), charity isn’t a virtue of the giver: charity is the relief of the receiver.

Again, is it just fine to steal for charity? The problem with this sort of thought‐pattern is that it completely neglects the harm caused to the person paying for this form of charity. Viewing charity as a virtue strikes a far better balance: it gives an incentive to do good, but cannot be used to force people to be charitable against their own interests.

Utopia is not an option.

[…] There is one valid way of using this phrase: to indicate that perfection is not a possible result. That is a rare usage.

I always thought it was the only one. The quote means that you cannot achieve perfection, and the discussion has progressed to an area where libertarian ideals lead to consequences commonly held to be undesirable. When this happens, it is useful to point out that all ideologies have such weak spots, and that you have to look at the bigger picture before drawing any conclusions. Libertarianism fares very well when taken as a whole, or in the average, but like every ideology, it has its troubling sides. The point of this quote is that you cannot dismiss an ideology based on a single failing. If you do, you might as well give up right there. There’s no Utopia which gets every single thing right.

Democracy is like three wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for lunch.

We are not a simple democracy: we are a constitutional, representative democratic republic: there are not direct elections of laws and there is a constitution that limits what laws can be enacted. Extend the analogy to take that into account and lo and behold, it becomes: deciding what to have for lunch that is not one of us.

Adding what Mike said above about might and constitutional interpretation, everything that needs to be done is to make the sheep not one of us, and to proceed with being a wolf. Besides, even if the literal analogy of eating your peers does not hold, the point here is not really about cannibalism as Mike seems to think. It’s more about exploiting a minority to the benefit of the majority. Does Mike really think this has been comprehensively prevented in the US?

General observations

All in all, I think Mike raises some valid points about political rhetoric. Not all of it rests on a solid foundation, and libertarians too can resort to tactics of argumentation which are extremely doubtful.

However, I also think that Mike does not give proper thought to what he is criticizing. In many cases, he seems to willfully misinterpret what us libertarians are saying. This tendency is the most pronounced when he deals with quotations and maxims, as most of what Mike says does not even address the core questions posed by the underlying libertarian reasoning.

My feeling is that Mike ought to meet some of the quieter, better poised libertarians in real life, and hear them out. Much of what the NLF attacks is the kind of intense, evangelical speech one might expect to hear in a flamewar or in a political rally. Libertarianism, like most political ideologies, isn’t really like that. So, from what I see in NLF, I get a distinct sense that newsgroups as a medium have something to do with Mike’s views. They tend to provoke precisely the kind of speech Mike, quite correctly, opposes. This is why I’ve come to think that one often needs to discuss things face to face before engaging in an online discussion. That tends to take the edge off the textual medium, and greatly helps in understanding what it actually is that the other party is saying. I believe the latter is something both libertarians and Mike Huben would view as a worthy goal.