Bryan Caplan  

Block's Epicycle

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In the latest Libertarian Papers, my long-time debate partner Walter Block adds a strange new epicycle to libertarian absolutism.  Suppose, he asks, that "all-powerful Martians would blow up the entire earth" if various libertarian policies were adopted.  He refuses to bite the bullet of advocating the Earth's destruction, so he switches to a slightly different absolute moral theory:
I therefore propose an alternative, or, rather, a further explication of libertarianism. In this view, libertarianism becomes a theory of punishment, in its more well-developed format. Punishment for what? Why, of course, for the violation of the NAP.

We must cleave to some vestiges of traditional libertarianism in this new understanding of it. In this alternative dispensation, the libertarian would in effect say to the would-be murderer or rapist: it is a matter of irrelevance to us whether or not you engage in the acts you are now contemplating. Qua libertarians, we do not really care one way or the other.  However, if you engage in such acts, we will punish you to the full extent of the law.
The NAP, simpliciter, implies that never, ever should we oppose the legalization of drugs, no matter what the consequences. The more sophisticated version of libertarianism, punishment theory, states something very different. If the consequences are great enough in terms of rights violations, then, indeed, it is appropriate for a libertarian to oppose drug legalization, provided that those who oppose it are made to pay the proper penalty.
Similarly, if some libertarians oppose a tax cut in order to save the Earth from destruction at Martian hands:
[T]hose libertarians responsible for the rescinding of the tax reduction are guilty of a crime. They have in effect stolen the additional revenue that would have accrued to the long suffering tax payers, under the tax rate reduction plan. So, they must be punished, for violating the NAP. We first hold a ticker tape parade for these criminals, fete them all over the (grateful) world (since they have saved humanity). They were truly heroes, since, not only did they save us, but, as libertarians, they acted against the beloved NAP. But, then, given our new interpretation of libertarianism, we punish them to the full extent of the law, and, with their acquiescence! ... Thus, as good libertarians, who are also utilitarians, they welcome their punishment. In this way, only in this way, can we eat our utilitarian cake, and keep our deontological cake, too.
My take: All absolute moral theories (except trivial theories like "Always do the right thing") are vulnerable to devastating counter-examples.  Block himself quickly admits his punishment theory crumbles before a revised version of his Martian hypothetical.  So instead of adding his weird epicycle onto libertarian absolutism, why doesn't Block just switch to my common-sense position that libertarianism is only a presumption?

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COMMENTS (24 to date)

Bryan, you mention "the latest Libertarian Papers," and link to the site, as if you are referring to the latest issue. We don't have issues; we publish articles one at a time. Walter has had 3 recently. The one you are discussing is vol. 2, no. 6. “Is There an ‘Anomalous’ Section of the Laffer Curve?”, available here.

Classical liberal writes:

Off-topic: Mr. Kinsella, what happened to the old article no. 6, titled "Rejoinder to Prychitko on Austrian Dogmatism"?

Why are comments asking this question on LP being deleted? Why have you locked the comments to the present article no. 6?

B S Kalafut writes:

It's actually startling that such a Panglossian article made it into a scholarly journal, or that "NAP"/Non-Initiation of Force is still being considered in 2010. Then I look at the editorial board and find only Narveson who's not a member of the usual echo chamber. Like the "studies" departments that develop like athletes foot between academic departments' toes, this would seem to be a venue for scholarship that wouldn't pass intellectual muster elsewhere, especially when being considered by even fair-minded referees who don't abide the cognitive dissonance needed to advocate for non-initiation of force as a moral "principle" or inviolable rule.

A post on a widely read 'blog is too much attention given to this stuff. Perhaps it's time to start ignoring pseudo-intellectual libertarianism?

Harrison Searles writes:

The NAP is, in my humble opinion, an absolutely terrible moral construction that is a albatross around the neck of contemporary pro-liberty moral theory. Not only is it, as Bryan said, an absolutist doctrine, but it is also absurd. It is about time that it, along with all attempts to base such ethics upon pure reason alone, is jettisoned.

Nico D writes:

I have to reluctantly agree with the above two commenters. The rigidness of this kind of libertarian moral theory, aside from leading to absurd conclusions, also makes libertarianism seem absurd to a lot of potential "converts".

I'm with Prof. Caplan that we need to appeal more to moral intuitions that most people actually have. I part ways with him, however, in that I think a consequentialism based on commonly held and rigorously explored intuitions is the closest thing to a good ethical theory we have, as much as it makes things less neat. I think a presumption of libertarianism actually passes that test fairly well.

As always, I'm open to being persuaded that I'm wrong on any of these points :-)

Stephan Kinsella writes:

Those who tut-tut at the non-aggression principle--are you in favor of aggression, then? I don't think libertarians have anything to apologize for in eschewing and condemning aggression.

Stephan Kinsella writes:

BTW, for those who want to sniff at the non-aggression principle as outdated, outmoded, not "modern"-- I want to advise people to hold onto their wallets. I am reminded of this great line from Rand's Money Speech, "Run for your life from any man who tells you that money is evil. That sentence is the leper's bell of an approaching looter."

Classical liberal writes:

Mr. Kinsella, why do you act as if I didn't exist? Why don't you dare to give me a decent explanation about the LP issue?

Hume writes:

Classical liberal,

What exactly happened at the libertarian papers?

Louis B. writes:

Stephan Kinsella wrote:

Those who tut-tut at the non-aggression principle--are you in favor of aggression, then? I don't think libertarians have anything to apologize for in eschewing and condemning aggression.
I'm becoming more and more convinced that anarcho-capitalism is a way for people to feel superior by screaming AGGRESSION!!!

Skeptic: "So how would you prevent the creation of an even worse state than was abolished?"
An-cap: "I don't have to prove anything. AGGRESSION!!!"

Please prove me wrong, because I'd rather not have it that way.

Classical liberal wrote:

Mr. Kinsella, why do you act as if I didn't exist? Why don't you dare to give me a decent explanation about the LP issue?
Probably because he realized the foolishness of posting such a frivolous article at a supposedly professional venue... Thank God, honestly. We can do without more-libertarian-than-thous.

Hume wrote:

What exactly happened at the libertarian papers?
Walter Block accused David Prychtiko of not being a TRUE LIBERTARIAN. Much as I like Prof. Block, it would do him good to cease this habit of calling people out like that.
Classical liberal writes:


Last week, the last issue of Libertarian Papers was published on its website. It was made up of EIGHT papers. The paper no. 6 was titled "Rejoinder to Prychitko on Austrian Dogmatism", a highly controversial criticism of GMU austrians by Walter Block. It didn't take much until it dissappeared, being replaced by present no. 6 "Is there an anomalous section of the Laffer curve?", also by Mr. Block. Note that now there are just SEVEN - and not eight - papers.

No explanation of this manoeuvre was provided. I've written four comments on LP website asking for it - none of them has been answered so far. To the contrary, all of them, one after another, have been deleted. Furthemore, they deleted two comments written by other people (Ángel Martín and Mario). I've sent emails both to Stephan Kinsella and the LP webmaster, aswell, without receiving any answer.

Fortunately, when you do something like this on the internet, Google cache gets it and keeps it available for a period of time. That's why Block's original paper can still be accessed through it. Just type "Rejoinder to Prychitko on Austrian Dogmatism" on Google to find all the proves, including the paper itself.

As I said in my comments on LP, what are they trying to hide? Why do they eliminate everything I write? Why don't they answer my enquiries? Why don't they want the public to know what happened with that paper?

If you want to know my opinion on the paper, I wouldn't label it scientific or honest. It's closer to a religious excomunication act (concerning GMU austrians) than to an academic paper.

Classical liberal writes:

I've missed a point. Note that comments to present paper no. 6 are locked. You can't write a comment there. That's how they intended to deter me from publishing more comments. Obviouly, that's not enough to stop a hard-headed spaniard. Ï wrote my last two comments (the last of them hasn't been supressed so far) on paper no. 7's page.

Louis B.,

I'm glad to see that I'm not alone and more people noticed this thing.

Lee Kelly writes:

People are never so stupid as when they attempt to reason about ethics.

Michael Wiebe writes:


What do you think of Roderick Long's "Principle of Proportionality" approach? See, for example, this and this.

The proportionality requirement allows you to avoid the problems of absolutism.

B. S. Kalafut writes:

If by "aggression" you mean "initiation of force", then yes, I am in favor. Without getting into justifications for any of these, I support at least the initiation of force inherent in property rights, contracts, and liberal procedural justice. If I wanted to get sloppy I'd say I support initiation of force to the extent that Epstein does in _Skepticism and Freedom_, but I'd rather not glue myself to a thinker.

If by "aggression" you mean something having to do with intent, spirit, or virtue, I have no answer to your question at present.

Ben Kalafut writes:

OMG the "Rejoinder to Prychitko" is more damning to Austrianism than Mr Caplan's famous "Why I am not an Austrian", but unintentionally so.

This is hilarious stuff--thanks for noting it was in the Google cache.

[Acronym edited.--Econlib Ed.]

Hume writes:

I only get the abstract from the cache. How do you get the entire article?

B S Kalafut writes:

Search for the article title, bring up the listings from this pseudo-scholarly journal, then follow the link titled "Austrian Economics—The Ultimate Achievement of an Intellectual Journey"

Strangely, it's a *.doc file and not a DVI or PDF. Google, however, has converted it to HTML. Save a copy while you can.

PhysicistDave writes:

As someone who has been involved with the libertarian movement for nearly forty years, I’d like to explain why, pragmatically speaking, I would rather have an NAP “absolutist” such as Kinsella as a next-door neighbor rather than one of the oh-so-sophisticated folks who manage to transcend the NAP.

Over the decades, I’ve noticed that those who want to dispense with the NAP tend to end up not simply making minor pragmatic adjustments with regard to “neighborhood effects”: on the contrary, the ultimate result, whatever their original motivation, seems to be that they justify to themselves the welfare state, war, imperialism, taxation, etc.

I think it was the libertarian Loren Lomasky who openly endorsed socialized medicine (the Ontario Health Plan) in one of his early books. We all know about Randy Barnett’s coming out for the Iraq War. And, of course, there was my old friend Bill Evers’ (we were grad students at Stanford together) actually working for the Bush II administration in Iraq.

As a long-time homeowner in a middle-class neighborhood, I have, quite frankly, found that the little nitpickings about the NAP are irrelevant: if your neighbors are not jerks, they will not only abide by the NAP but they will even even avoid the sort of “borderline” situations in which the “correct” application of the NAP is subject to debate.

No, as a pragmatic sociological observation, I have found that the “libertarians” who attack the NAP are less interested in (largely non-existent) “neighborhood effects” than they are in justifying horrendous, often murderous, actions against their fellow human beings.

So, I make it a policy to avoid the nitpicking arguments myself and merely sit back and wait to see exactly what huge acts of aggression against other human beings the nitpickers will turn out to be all too eager to justify.

I am rarely disappointed.

Dave Miller in Sacramento

PhysicistDave writes:

Louie B. wrote:

>I'm becoming more and more convinced that anarcho-capitalism is a way for people to feel superior by screaming AGGRESSION!!!

>Skeptic: "So how would you prevent the creation of an even worse state than was abolished?"
>An-cap: "I don't have to prove anything. AGGRESSION!!!"

> Please prove me wrong, because I'd rather not have it that way.

Y’know, Louie, as a militant and noisy “an-cap,” to use your vocabulary, I do not think I have ever had anyone outside the “libertarian” movement raise your “skeptic’s” question.

But since, *you* raised it, the answer is simple. We “an-caps” are not central planners: we can neither control nor predict what our fellow human beings will do if, when, and after they choose to abolish the state.

Of course, if they abolish the state because they choose to listen to us, then we might hope that they would not turn around immediately and create another state!

But, alas, that all seems a rather distant prospect: our fellow citizens seem reluctant to listen to us either on the issue of abolishing the state or on the issue of not creating a new state right after abolishing the old one.

So, we “an-caps” are left with the humble task of pointing out to anyone who will listen that the government is simply a bunch of guys who carry out in broad daylight crimes that ordinary criminals tend to carry out under cover of darkness.

And, now and then, some people do listen to us: here and there, a young kid is less likely to sign up to kill (or be killed) halfway around the world in “service to his country.” A few people may be less likely to vote as jurors for a drug conviction because of us.

Or, perhaps, not.

We are not central planners. We can point out the truth about the state. We cannot control what others do who hear (or choose not to hear) that truth.


ka1igu1a writes:

I posted on this topic earlier this week here:

a cache copy of the original Libertarian Paper article is linked from there. i also do have a PDF of the original article.

This debate is rehashing the non-rationalist vs praxeology approaches to libertarianism, i.e. Hayek vs Rothbard. The non-rationalist side usually ascribes to some form an evolutionary framework that inherits from the Scottish tradition.

it's unfortunate that Block resorted to Euclidean geometry to invoke an example of "apodictic certainty" since there is a whole branch of noneuclidean geometry where, in fact, the sum of the angles of triangles do not equal 180 degrees. And it would be remiss not to point that our own physical universe, SpaceTime, is a (pseudo) Reimannian Manifold(that is, in the presence of matter, SpaceTime only locally resembles a Euclidean space). This fact, of course, was verified by experiment(the famous Eddington experiment)

Block's exhortation that those Austrian Economists(in relation to Prychitko) who subscribe to non-rationalism use a new description has been, in effect, taken up by them, as they have have changed the name of their blog from "The Austrian Economists" to "The Coordination Problem."

With respect to NAP, it is indeed central to any conception of Libertarian Justice, but the relative "thinness" of it leads too much disagreement, even among libertarians, over the correct applicability of it vis a vis any relevance as a 'social theory." I agree with Block that libertarianism is a political theory, or a social theory, and given that rationalist arguments argument even among libertarians is unable to resolve these disputes(e.g., land, natural resources, the commons, voluntary contracts of servitude, etc, etc...), just leads credence to the more non-rationalist approach. if anything is self-evident, the rationalist argument disputes over the applicability of NAP is it.

Personally, while i don't share the same approach to libertarianism as Kinsella, i do respect his willingness to engage critics. however, i have to laugh a bit about NAP "purity" made by a previous commenter; it's not like the school Kinsella associates with, namely the Lew rockwell crowd, isn't supporting Rand Paul, someone who best I can ascertain is a social conservative republican aligning himself with neoconservative doctrine in order to get elected. Utter hypocrisy. No lectures about "NAP purity" from that crowd...

B S Kalafut writes:

"As a long-time homeowner in a middle-class neighborhood, I have, quite frankly, found that the little nitpickings about the NAP are irrelevant: if your neighbors are not jerks, they will not only abide by the NAP but they will even even avoid the sort of “borderline” situations in which the “correct” application of the NAP is subject to debate."

If they, too, are homeowners, then they do not avoid problematic situations for NAP/NIFP; they own property.

Aside from that, sometimes those "borderline" situations really mug you. The NIFP/NAP forbids rule of law in a liberal framework and perhaps liberty per se. If subpoenaed, do they become fugitives from justice? Would they ever cause others to be subpoenaed? What about lawsuits? And if, as it is in their view, the state is someone's agent in criminal cases, they are crime victims, do they ever call the police? Arrests of _suspects_--not _convicts_, as that comes later--are a clear violation of NIFP.

Me, I'd rather not have cognitive-dissonance-embracing knuckle-draggers who pretend to have moral clarity as my neighbors, or in my movement. The NIFP crowd--especially the Rothbardians--have been the single most destructive force in American libertarianism.

ka1igu1a writes:

Just to respond to B S Kalafut:

libertarianism is rooted in the rejection of the social contract and the "idea of the rule of law in a liberal framework." That precedes Rothbard by about a century and a half. Lysander Spooner eviscerated the idea of the constitution as "social contract" and then it was later left to the Boston Anarchists to put to rest that there was any intrinsic moral clarity to the rule of law; it's all by contract...

That's American libertarianism, following from the French tradition of radical liberalism rooted in a class critique of politics.

B S Kalafut writes:

I'd hate to perseverate by continuing to comment on this thread, but the claim that "libertarianism" is categorically rooted in what you say it is rooted in excludes Hayek, Buchanan, Epstein, perhaps Nozick, and certainly and especially Gauthier and Narveson from "libertarianism". It's an abuse of language, to say the least, to claim that libertarianism is rooted in the ideas of Benjamin Tucker and co.

The word "libertarian" is commonly used to denote free-market liberalism; echoing Postrel, re-definitions excluding Hayek are totally useless.

Spooner's "evisceration", by the way, has little to do with contemporary contractarianism, the positions and ideas commonly implied by use of the term "social contract" in 2010. He thoroughly discredited what today is an intellectual straw man, a schoolboy cliche of contractarianism that libertarian autodidacts mistake for the real thing. "I ain't never signed no contract!"

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