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Robin Hanson on Libertarian Basics

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Who Said It?... Reflections on Rod Long's "Lib...

He writes,


So everyone agrees that we heroically help some, and leave others to die. We only disagree on who falls into which category.

What most non-libertarians favor is some form of collectivist policy at a national level. National socialism, to coin a phrase.

People are naturally collectivist at the level of family and others in their immediate vicinity. And that's fine. But to libertarians, national socialism is a mistake. The way to behave ethically with distant strangers is to trade honestly with them and don't steal their stuff. There is no reason to treat distant strangers that live within one political boundary differently from distant strangers that live inside another boundary.

Now, it might be good for some of us to be particularly generous to some distant strangers. But libertarians would argue that this should be done voluntarily, and that it does not justify employing the coercive apparatus of the state.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (10 to date)
Serveto writes:
Now, it might be good for some of us to be particularly generous to some distant strangers. But libertarians would argue that this should be done voluntarily, and that it does not justify employing the coercive apparatus of the state.

I've always regarded these sorts of deontological arguments for libertarianism with awe. I'm awed that anyone could think their arbitrary assumptions of what is just or unjust could ever have any great persuasive power for people who do not already share the same intuitive moral sentiments. This phenomenon is especially disconcerting when you appreciate the value-free argument for liberalism, or libertarianism if you prefer, i.e. that the proponents of illiberal ideologies are mistaken in their analysis of the consequences of the adoption of their preferred policies, and that liberal policies actually achieve what they say they support.

So in a discussion on whether the government should force people to spend their money generously, you could argue from a deontological perspective, i.e. "the policy you propose is immoral, therefore it should not be enacted," or you could analyze the explicit promulgations of proponents of government charity, and determine whether or not such programs could achieve the ends the proponents aim at.

If you approach the argument from the former perspective, at best you will only succeed in shifting the debate away from the specific policy proposal, towards a more broad discussion of morality, without ever resolving the initial dispute. Conversely, the latter approach restricts the debate to matters which are confirmed or denied by economic science, and keeps the discussion focused on the topic in question. The second approach also effectively negates appeals to emotion, which is socialism's greatest strength.

E. Barandiaran writes:

Hanson says "Where they disagree is who counts as a stranger."
He should have said "Where they disagree is who decides who counts as a stranger." As you have often said, elitists want to decide for all of us, and in this particular issue collectivist elitists want to impose on all of us their decision (meaning that if they were government, they would enforce their definition).

Brandon Berg writes:

I've been thinking about a model of taxation of the super-rich recently that touches upon a similar theme.

Basically, billionaires literally have more money than they know what to do with, at least when it comse to personal consumption. Their marginal propensity to consume is essentially zero, and all they can do with excess money is invest or donate it.

The upshot of this is that you can't reduce a billionaire's personal consumption by taxing him. You can only reduce the amount of money he has available to invest or donate.

Investment, of course, primarily benefits workers at the expense of other investors, so as far as that goes it's kind of a wash, aside from the deadweight loss.

But here's where it gets ugly: The two wealthiest Americans, Gates and Buffett, among others, have committed to donating big chunks of their wealth to third-world charities. To raise taxes on people like Gates and Buffett to fund middle-class entitlements, as many on the left would have us do, is in a very real sense robbing the poor (the beneficiaries of their charity) and giving to the rich (typical Americans).

Steve Sailer writes:

"There is no reason to treat distant strangers that live within one political boundary differently from distant strangers that live inside another boundary."

There is a reason: war.

You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. Having fellow citizens who will fight to defend your political boundary for your mutual benefit makes your life much less brutal, nasty, and short than not having fellow citizens.

Don Lloyd writes:

@Brandon Berg

"Investment, of course, primarily benefits workers at the expense of other investors, so as far as that goes it's kind of a wash, aside from the deadweight loss."

I don't understand this.

High paying jobs, charity, savings, and government transfers can only accomplish one thing : re-allocation of purchasing power. Only investments (and only a subset of those) can improve the general standard of living by increasing the future supply of goods and services.

Regards, Don

Cryptomys writes:

So what do we do with an indigent prisoner serving, for example, life without parole, whose appendix is about to rupture? Do we pay for his medical car or do we just let him die?

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

I will beg you all in these discussions to cease reification of The Government and The State.

What is really at complaint is use by certain groups of persons, people, individuals to use the mechanisms of governments (right down to town councils) to affect the otherwise unencumbered individual conduct of others, regardless of consent.

"Libertarians" generally abhore the doctrine of implied consent.

There are forms of constitutions which do specify or limit implied consent; others exist which purport to limit the uses that can be made of the mechanisms.

None have been without perversions of their intent.

MK writes:

That national socialism reference is pretty uncouth

Evan writes:

@Serveto

I've always regarded these sorts of deontological arguments for libertarianism with awe. I'm awed that anyone could think their arbitrary assumptions of what is just or unjust could ever have any great persuasive power for people who do not already share the same intuitive moral sentiments.
The thing is, most people do have fairly similar moral sentiments. Most deontological arguments take situations that pretty much everyone agrees are wrong (stealing, for instance) attempt to derive a general rule from that (using force to take others possessions is wrong) and then draw new moral conclusions by applying those rules to other areas that are less intuitively clear cut (taxation is theft).

Generally, when people get into these sorts of debates, it isn't the moral sentiments they disagree on, nearly everyone thinks stealing is wrong. It's the rule deriving/applying that makes everyone argue.

@Steve Sailer

You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. Having fellow citizens who will fight to defend your political boundary for your mutual benefit makes your life much less brutal, nasty, and short than not having fellow citizens.
Recognition that someone is instrumentally useful in certain situations is not a reason to treat them differently in all other situations. Store employees are useful to me when I'm shopping, and the service they provide me does improve my life, but if I meet them outside the store they're usually just another stranger.

And isn't people's willingness to treat non-citizens differently from citizens precisely what causes international warfare?

Frank Howland writes:

I wish to add my voice to MK's. To me equating most non-libertarians with the Nazis is quite offensive. I think that Arnold should apologize.

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