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Answer to Libertarian Questions from High School Class in Norway

My exchange with a high school teacher from Norway, whose class had some questions about the libertarian approach to certain issues.

I am teacher at a high school in Norway. During my classes I have spent some time trying to explain libertarianism to my students, and I have used some of your articles, and of course Murray Rothbard has been central.

Some of the students have really dug into the material, to my surprise really. Regarding the extent anyway.

I am writing to you because I simply have trouble answering their questions up to a point, and I would sincerely appreciate it if you would help me with some questions here:

1) What happens on a territory – in a stateless society – where a person or a group of persons are starving to death because nobody will employ them, do business with them, help them etc. What are they supposed to do? Starve to death because, after all, those who wont help them have gained their properties just and should thereby not be attacked? What if survival for them triumphs “justice”? Will this not be an unstable society? Is it not easy to understand that these people will choose war rather than death?

2) Mobility: How can a stateless society avoid that a rich misantrophe uses his rights to block important trade routes and roads?

3) Is it reasonable to accept that private persons can own nuclear weapons or high-tech modern war weapons?

4) The ethics of Liberty by Rothbard; do you hold this as the primary work in freedom ethics, and do you find any flaws in it? Or is it as you see it flawless, and thereby a document which should be basis for a “common law”?

5) There has been some talk about Rothbards work on children here in Norway; is it correct that he meant that not feeding ones child should not be a punishable offense by common law? Do you support this and his reasoning behind it?

Best regards,

[X]

Kinsella response:

On Wed, Oct 15, 2014 at 7:51 AM, [X] wrote:

I am teacher at a high school in Norway. During my classes I have spent some time trying to explain libertarianism to my students, and I have used some of your articles, and of course Murray Rothbard has been central.Some of the students have really dug into the material, to my surprise really. Regarding the extent anyway.I am writing to you because I simply have trouble answering their questions up to a point, and I would sincerely appreciate it if you would help me with some questions here:1) What happens on a territory – in a stateless society – where a person or a group of persons are starving to death because nobody will employ them, do business with them, help them etc. What are they supposed to do? Starve to death because, after all, those who wont help them have gained their properties just and should thereby not be attacked? What if survival for them triumphs “justice”? Will this not be an unstable society? Is it not easy to understand that these people will choose war rather than death?

As a practical matter, we can expect a freer society to be an increasingly rich one, with an increasing ability for private charity to be available for rare situations like this.  If someone is so unpleasant and anti-social that they can’t get charity from people in a rich society, what does it say about them?1 And in any case, if you imagine almost no one in private life would help this person, why would we imagine they would vote in favor of a state welfare apparatus that would?

2) Mobility: How can a stateless society avoid that a rich misanthrope uses his rights to block important trade routes and roads?

This to me seems to be a strawman. When has this problem ever existed in a free society? More realistically, this kind of thing happens when the rich and large corporations cozy up to the state and use the state’s power to hamper competition. The real problem is the existence of the state, not how people would have to behave in a really free market.

3) Is it reasonable to accept that private persons can own nuclear weapons or high-tech modern war weapons?

It is not reasonable to accept that states can own them. They will use them for genocide, bullying, murder, aggression. Besides, there is reason to think that such private ownership of aggressive WMD would be discouraged in a free society. For example if you move into an inhabited area, many neighbors would not want you to have WMD so this would be reflected in restrictive covenants, or in insurance agreements, and so on.

4) The ethics of Liberty by Rothbard; do you hold this as the primary work in freedom ethics, and do you find any flaws in it? Or is it as you see it flawless, and thereby a document which should be basis for a “common law”?

It is probably the seminal work that established modern libertarian thought. Of course it is not flawless; it is not comprehensive, and it made a lot of guesses and predictions as to what a future free world would look like. But it’s a darned good start.

5) There has been some talk about Rothbards work on children here in Norway; is it correct that he meant that not feeding ones child should not be a punishable offense by common law? Do you support this and his reasoning behind it?

My view is that there can be positive obligations, established as a consequence of action. I discuss this in How We Come To Own Ourselves.

I’d be happy to discuss on the phone or skype with you if it might help, or even participate in a skype or google hangout discussion with your high school class, if you like.

Best, SK

Teacher’s reply:

Thank you so much for interesting perspectives. Can I ask you: has there been times when you have doubted your ideology? Is there any questions within this ideology you have trouble answering?

Kinsella response:

I’ve become increasingly libertarian over the years. Basically I believe the libertarian approach arises because of one’s values or preferences–for example, I prefer human peace, cooperation and prosperity. The rest just flows from those basic values or preferences, given a bit of economic logic and consistency in thinking. I think most people as a general matter will say they prefer, ceteris paribus, peace, cooperation, prosperity for themselves and the human race in general. The reason they are not fully libertarian is they are not fully consistent or aware of the economic implications of the policies they advocate, which run contrary to their stated goals.

As for difficult issues. Well.

At an earlier point I was not clear about patent and copyright, so was not sure if such laws were justified or not. Now it seems clear to me that they are not.

Probably the most difficult issues come down to line-drawing or epistemic issues. For example, we have to recognize injustice is possible, and that doing true justice after an act of crime, is not really possible–it is not possible to undo a crime or to fully restore the victim. This is one reason we oppose crime in the first place, of course, but still, once it happens, we have the issue of what kind of restitution is justified. This answer seems not to be the type that can be answered precisely. Thus there will always be room for some human intuition or judgment. Similar issues arise with respect to pollution or “nuisances”–obviously people have to be free to cause some noise, emit some pollution, even pose some slight risk on others–but when this rises to too high a level, others’ can reasonably enjoin or respond to it. How to draw such lines is perhaps difficult. Similar issues abound for things like private ownership of nuclear weapons, how to deal with serial killers or stalkers, and how a free society could survive if it were surrounded by nuclear-armed super-power hostile states (like the US or China or the USSR). However, these issues tend to be difficult because life is difficult, and by and large, other poliitcal philosophies do not handle them any better than libertarianism does. A state that controls a given territory might respond to a threat from another state by conscripting its citizens (enslaving them), taxing their earnings to pay for defense or war, and jailing dissidents. That is an “answer” but that does not mean it is just.

The libertarian view in my opinion is really simply about love of one’s life and love of human civilization and one’s fellow man. It is the outcome of the sincere and principled desire to live in peace and cooperate with others, and of the opposition to the use of violence against our fellow men to settle differences. It is the ultimate “live and let live” philosophy. That is why I love it and that I think is what draws people to it. Libertarians appreciate the beauty and necessity of interpersonal freedom, both in the personal and civil liberties sphere as well as in the economic sphere. We believe in freedom of thought, belief, association, and speech, but also freedom of trade, independence, property rights, and so on. For us it is holistic. It is not A versus B. It is not civil liberties versus economic liberties. It is an integrated whole. Each is necessary; each supports and complements the other, and blends into the other. How can you have freedom of press if you can’t own a printing press? How can you have property rights in a business or home if the state can tell you that you can’t use or sell drugs there or worship the “wrong” religion? You cannot have civil liberties without economic freedom, and vice versa. This is what libertarians see, because of our insistence on clarity, honesty, principles, consistency, and economic truth. Most people are at least “soft” libertarians in their daily lives–they live and let live, help each other out, respect each others’ rights, hope for the flourishing of their friends, family, neighbors, and fellow men even as they strive for their own happiness and flourishing. This is the essence of civilization, of society. We all benefit from living among each other: the division of labor, communication, learning, cooperation, the transmission of accumulated knowledge, society, friendship, trade, discourse, intercourse. Libertarianism is basically the extension of civility, of society, to a more rigorous, systematic, and principled level, informed by the laws of economics.

I’d be happy to talk further, if you like, even engage in a recorded or even online lecture (say, google hangout) with your class, if you like.

I have lectured on this in the past, by the way, and you might perhaps find of interest some of my previous courses, which are all online now for free: my Libertarian Legal Theory course for Mises Academy;  Libertarian Controversies; and The Social Theory of Hoppe.

My best, Stephan

Teacher’s reply:

This is great!

Ive printed your answers and delivered them to some of the groups 🙂

I have asked the most eager ones to set up a list of the most difficult questions, and maybe I could send you these?

Kinsella response:

Sure, no problem.

Best, SK

Teacher’s reply:

I must say that your answers were quite impressing – and warm quite frankly!

Kinsella response:

You are very welcome. We are all fellow humans in this together. I appreciate your and your students’ interest in the ideas of liberty.

Stephan

  1. As Hoppe notes in The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, p. 287: “In fact, what strikes Conway as a counterintuitive implication of the homesteading ethic, and then leads him to reject it, can easily be interpreted quite differently. It is true, as Conway says, that this ethic would allow for the possibility of the entire world’s being homesteaded. What about newcomers in this situation who own nothing but their physical bodies? Cannot the homesteaders restrict access to their property for these newcomers and would this not be intolerable? I fail to see why. (Empirically, of course, the problem does not exist: if it were not for governments restricting access to unowned land, there would still be plenty of empty land around!) These newcomers normally come into existence somewhere as children born to parents who are owners or renters of land (if they came from Mars, and no one wanted them here, so what?; they assumed a risk in coming, and if they now have to return, tough luck!). If the parents do not provide for the newcomers, they are free to search the world over for employers, sellers, or charitable contributors, and a society ruled by the homesteading ethic would be, as Conway admits, the most prosperous one possible! If they still could not find anyone willing to employ, support, or trade with them, why not ask what’s wrong with them, instead of Conway’s feeling sorry for them? Apparently they must be intolerably unpleasant fellows and should shape up, or they deserve no other treatment. Such, in fact, would be my own intuitive reaction.”   []
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  • Dennis New October 23, 2014, 8:42 pm

    I’d be really curious to know if “YOUR ideologies” (the radical “ideology” of not hurting innocent people) get taken seriously by him. His polite empty replies seem condescending. It should be pointed out that he has an incredible vested interest in ignoring/ridiculing “your” “ideology” (universal ethics). Should he acknowledge it, what will be the implications to his job, and the kids he helps hold hostage.

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