David R. Henderson  

Richman: Non-Libertarians Sorta Agree With Us

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My Delightful Societal Bubble

Libertarians make a self-defeating mistake in assuming that their fundamental principles differ radically from most other people's principles. Think how much easier it would be to bring others to the libertarian position if we realized that they already agree with us in substantial ways.

What am I talking about? It's quite simple. Libertarians believe that the initiation of force is wrong. So do the overwhelming majority of nonlibertarians. They, too, think it is wrong to commit offenses against person and property. I don't believe they abstain merely because they fear the consequences (retaliation, prosecution, fines, jail, lack of economic growth). They abstain because they sense deep down that it is wrong, unjust, improper. In other words, even if they never articulate it, they believe that other individuals are ends in themselves and not merely means to other people's the ends. They believe in the dignity of individuals. As a result, they perceive and respect the moral space around others. (This doesn't mean they are consistent, but when they are not, at least they feel compelled to rationalize.)


These are the opening paragraphs of an article by Sheldon Richman, "One Moral Standard for All."

Sheldon then goes on to point out the big difference between (most) libertarians and non-libertarians and then expresses some optimism:

Libertarians differ from others in that they apply the same moral standard to all people's conduct. Others have a double standard, the live-and-let-live standard for "private" individuals and another, conflicting one for government personnel. All we have to do is get people to see this and all will be well.

He also adds a touch of humor:
Socrates would walk through the agora in Athens pointing out to people that they unwittingly held contradictory moral positions. By asking them probing questions, he nudged them into adjusting their views until they were brought into harmony, with the nobler of their views holding sway. (Does this mean that agoraphobia began as a fear of being accosted by a Greek philosopher in a public place?)

I love this essay. I've been thinking about it since I read it yesterday and I think it helps solve a puzzle.

I had been wondering why I didn't connect at all with Bryan's March 9, 2012 post, "My Beautiful Bubble." Like him, I have very specific tastes and I judge everyone. So why do I love interacting with everyday people--at the supermarket, the drug store, heck, even the DMV? Well, my wife put her finger on it. When my friend Fred Jealous, as we were getting ready to patrol the streets of Seaside, along with some black ministers, the night of the Rodney King verdict, said, "David loves a challenge," my wife replied, "David loves people."

Bryan wrote that he finds our society "dreary, insipid, ugly, boring, wrong, and wicked." I find it almost the opposite. It has all those elements that Bryan notices but for me they're secondary to the underlying goodness of most people. Sheldon Richman's piece helped me see that.

Bryan writes, "Trying to reform it [the larger society] is largely futile." Again I disagree. With my interactions I try to reform it every day and succeed in little ways.

One little story might make this last point more concrete. When my students graduate, I show up just before they file in and visit with them, getting pictures taken of them in their military uniforms and me in black robe, mortarboard, and UCLA blue and gold. To get what I'm about to say, you need to remember that the Americans among my students take an oath, not to defend the country--that's not even mentioned--but to defend the Constitution. Virtually all of them are familiar with the First Amendment. A number of years ago, one of my students while dressed in his crisp Marine uniform, vented about some statist thing newsreader Tom Brokaw had said and then added, "He ought to be locked up." I grinned, looked at him, and said, "Sworn to defend the Constitution and any day now you're going to start, huh X. [I don't want to name him.]" He grinned back and looked sheepish, realizing what he had done.

By the way, all this is a further answer to the question John Stossel asked me: "Why are you so cheerful?"


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COMMENTS (46 to date)
Andrew_FL writes:

I would hope that most people share those principles, but I can't know that they do. I am left with conflicting evidence: There day to day actions suggest they are mostly normal people, but then they say something that indicates that must be completely by accident.

It depends whether their thoughts are assumed consistent or not, and I have a hard time imagining it personally but I guess some people might just not apply the way they think about their everyday lives to politics? I seems so odd, is all.

There is the issue of how I have seen people raise their children-having had to group up with their children. That seemed to suggest to me a wide gulf in how people even view the way to act in everyday life. Just my personal experience.

Greg G writes:

Speaking as a non-libertartian, I do sorta agree with you David. I do think that the burden of proof should be on those who want the state to exercise coercive powers that we wouldn't cede to individuals. I just think that burden of proof is met in more cases than you do.

Most non-libertarians agree that negative rights are very important but we think positive rights count too. The absence of coercion is a very important value but not the only important value. Most people don't only care about the absence of coercion. They also care about the presence of meaningful options. Different values can and do sometimes conflict with one another.

Non-libertarians think the state's near monopoly on the use of force is a feature, not a bug. Throughout history and throughout the world today, the places where coercion has been minimized the most have not been the places where there has been the least government (or the most). The places where liberty has done best have been the places with governments and traditions strong enough to support it.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Greg, Isn't this a perpetual delicate balance? btwn state police forces and individual rights?
So says Reinhold Niehbuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society.

Greg G writes:

Yup. It's a very delicate balance.

Bob Murphy writes:

I realize this was not the main point of the post, but now I can't help but think of David and Fred Jealous cruising around in a '64 Impala with Mac-10s on the sides of their hips.

Krishnan writes:

There is indeed something wondrous about watching the intellectual growth of students you have had the honor of mentoring in some way ... And I understand the feeling of watching them just as they are about to "leave the fold" as it were ... almost like watching a child leave home ...

Yes, there is much we can criticize about the world at large - and about the people - but it is indeed amazing how much you can learn by these daily, normal interactions - there is indeed something we can learn from every human being - so to hear someone talk about the world as being "dreary, insipid, ugly, boring, wrong, and wicked" is strange - With rare exceptions, I have almost always become better because of an interaction with a total stranger - there is indeed something every human offers - it all depends on the filters we use for the world around us ...

James writes:

Greg G: What do you mean saying that some burden of proof has been met? When new government programs are implemented no one takes up any burden of proof. The government just does it.

Regardless of that, what would such a proof even look like? I mean suppose that you wanted to prove that some type of coercion is justified but only if it's being done by the government. How would you prove that without assuming from the start that members of a government are a special category of people?

David: I think you are misunderstanding. For most people, it is simply a given that governments are a special case outside any normal sense of right and wrong. This is a feature in their minds. The government is a great legal and moral insulator. If I want to get you to pay for my child's education so that I can spend my income on other things, my conscience and the law prevent me from just directly making you do it. But I can get what I want with a clear conscience and no legal problems if the government will do my dirty work for me. For an awful lot of people, that's far more appealing than the type of abstract arguments that appeal to many libertarians.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I find it fascinating that anyone would even need to be persuaded of that first paragraph - that there are any libertarians under the impression that this is the principle difference between them and non-libertarians. It's a little insulting, but more than that it's just amazing how widely so many of them are off the mark.

I disagree with Richman, though, on the ultimate differences between most libertarians and non-libertarians (and I'm talking about the people in both camps that have really thought about the parameters of a liberal society - clearly there are a lot of people out there who just don't put much thought to these questions too). The principle difference, it seems to me, is in identifying what constitutes aggression and what constitutes coercion. A lot of libertarians identify things as aggression that most other people wouldn't and vice versa.

This is of course a much harder answer for a libertarian to swallow than "oh we're the consistent ones and they aren't".

And when you recognize that these points are contested - that they are not always easy to sort into one category or another - it becomes a lot harder to attach yourself to one particularly ideology in the broader set of liberal ideologies.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I find your application to your own life interesting too, David.

If I were to just take Richman's argument at face value I would think it would imply pessimism or haughtiness about other people, much like Bryan. If you really buy what he's saying (I don't), it means you're walking around thinking that all these non-libertarians are just especially inconsistent in applying their values. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. They love liberty but they're arbitrary about it.

That sounds like Bryan's bubble to me, right? That doesn't sound like an optimistic take on the world.

Pajser writes:

I believe humanity is a criminal organization, because of evils we do to other animals including people.

Greg G writes:

James

When I referred to "the burden of proof" being met I was simply talking about the point at which someone is convinced by the argument. This is a common figure of speech. It does not imply that there is a formal mathematical type proof or even a common standard.

My whole point was that different people will always have different standards on what constitutes coercion or aggression. And that most definitely includes libertarians when you move off general principles and get down to specific cases.

I have certainly never met any of these people you seem to think exist who don't believe government can do any wrong. Can you cite a single person who actually makes this claim? Should be easy since you claim the group includes "most people."

And do you think that corporate officers are a "special category of people" because they are authorized to use corporate resources in a way that some shareholders disagree with and find coercive?

Mike writes:

James, I think there is a burden of proof. Before any policy is enacted someone, somewhere in the bureaucracy decides that it is a good idea. Since it is impossible for everyone in the world to agree that something is right before we do it, we have to delegate the responsibility to various officials.

The trouble is that we have delegated a lot of authority to officials and we don't always agree with them. But there is no gold standard way of "proving" to God and all the universe that something is right before doing it. Some individual or group of individuals just has to decide.

LD Bottorff writes:

I suspect that a large portion of our society believe that persuasion need only consist of convincing a majority of people, not convincing every person.
According to that thinking, if over 50% of the people believe it is bad to sell marijuana, then it should be illegal. If over 50% of the workers at a company favor unionization, then the union becomes the sole negotiator for all the workers.
Libertarians would see that as tyranny of the majority. Non-libertarians would see it as democracy.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

The end of Egypt's fourth dynasty (2700 BC), the Minoans (1900 BC), Romans (100 BC), all preceded about 1000 years of work to get up to the prior peak. So, is it rational to be happy circa 1800 BC in Crete, thinking about Plato, or sad, thinking he won't be around for 1500 years?

Or more recently, would you be right to be happy in Haiti circa 1800, if you correctly foresaw the next 2 centuries?

Progress has been very lumpy across time and geographies, with hundreds of generations confined to barbarism. It's not obvious that I should be comforted by faith in general progress.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Eric Falkenstein,
Progress has been very lumpy across time and geographies, with hundreds of generations confined to barbarism. It's not obvious that I should be comforted by faith in general progress.
Fair enough. Sounds like the makings of a bet. Are you interested in exploring that?

Greg Jaxon writes:
@Greg G: "...those who want the state to exercise coercive powers that we wouldn't cede to individuals."
You recognize, I hope, that you have this all backward. If no individual has the power in question, then there was no source able to delegate said power to a government - at least not to any government formed through consent of the governed.

Your proof has begun by assuming what was to be proved: that government exists as a special category of moral entity.

MingoV writes:
I don't believe they abstain merely because they fear the consequences (retaliation, prosecution, fines, jail, lack of economic growth).
Numerous studies refute that belief. When people perceive that they can commit a wrong act without being caught, the majority will commit the wrong act. Similarly, a large percentage of the population will shirk responsibilities whenever possible. Studies also show that a large proportion of people often tell lies despite proclaiming their belief that honesty is an important value. The studies that show a majority of people willing to harm others just because a "scientist" tells them to proves that most people do not believe in the dignity of individuals.

None of the above means that libertarians are totally different from the majority of the population. I personally believe that we are different, but I don't have adequate evidence to support that belief. What is true is that Richman's beliefs about the goodness in most people are naive at best and delusional at worst.

Bryan wrote that he finds our society "dreary, insipid, ugly, boring, wrong, and wicked."
I sometimes disagree with Bryan Caplan, but not on this subject.
Mark V Anderson writes:

Mingo -- I'd like to see that study that indicates most folks will do a "wrong" act if they can get away with it. I think it must depend on the act. Certainly people would speed more and commit more traffic violations if they weren't concerned about cops. Would they kill people or rob them? I find that unlikely for the majority.

Greg G writes:

Greg Jaxon,

I thought I made clear that I was not claiming to have offered some logical proof, but merely a description of how the world works in real life as contrasted with some fantasy libertarian world where you get unanimous consent for some arrangement that you develop in your imagination.

Throughout human history, societies that have lacked effective government have almost always had very high levels of violence and coercion. No one has to delegate anything to anybody to make that happen. It is the default condition when government is absent.

When you look at history where do you see freedom and prosperity relatively highest and lowest?

Greg Jaxon writes:
@LD Bottorff: "tyranny of the majority" vs "democracy".
While such differences are absolutely crucial to the nature of the political economy, they are irrelevant to the question of whether, metaphorically, God first made Man, who then formed governments, or whether He made Rulers, who then marshaled some subjects and ceded to them a few "rights".

I think that is the gap between Libertarians and the rest of socialist politics. Do we have Rules? or Rulers? This might not be a settled question. But Enlightenment Westerners tend to make the Individual sovereign and our morality holds the individual responsible for his actions and ultimate fate. The US Constitution certainly emerged from that mindset, and so now seems quite Libertarian in character, if not very anarchistic.

Greg Jaxon writes:
@Greg G "how the world works in real life as contrasted with some fantasy libertarian world"
Perhaps I misread you. You may believe that since men seem to possess the ability to coerce each other, they civilize themselves by ceding this (as a local monopoly) to a government, who then delegates this out to sheriffs and armies, etc.

I think that is very close to how non-Libertarians see things, and it keeps them out of trouble up to the same point where unchecked use of force by an individual gets into trouble: robbing Peter to pay Paul.

So the next refinement of our Lib vs Non-Lib distinction has to be whether what's delegated to government is the blanket power to coerce, or the more moral power to use force in self-defense, and coupled to that must be how on earth do you keep such a delegation of violent power in check?

I'd rather not speculate about non-Libertarians' fantasies, but I will mention Trotsky's "Socialist Man", which was the fantasy selfless "comrade" to the perfected communist state.

Greg G writes:

Greg Jaxon,

--"how on earth do you keep such a delegation of violent power in check?"

Well, if you limit yourself to all of human history, constitutional democracy provides the best results. It's far from foolproof but it works a whole lot better than anything else.

You seem to think in false dichotomies: "Libertarians and the rest of socialist politics," "the blanket power to coerce, or the more (mere?) moral power to use force in self-defense."

I have to say this is the first I have seen the U.S. Constitution described as "very anarchistic." You do know the whole purpose in writing it was to achieve a greater centralization of power than there was under the Articles of Confederation, right? The Anti-federalists were the libertarians of their day. They nearly succeeded in defeating the Constitution and opposed it precisely because it was intended to centralize government power to a greater degree than the Articles of Confederation.

Tom West writes:

I think the main difference between Libertarians and non-Libertarians is that non-Libertarians have *more* principles, which, as pointed out, conflict with each other.

For the majority, life is a constant weighing of each moral principle against each other. Somewhat sadly, in such moral calculus, I suspect it's pretty easy to forego the unseen (freedom) for the seen (some injustice or suffering), which why it's valuable to have Libertarianism as a constant reminder of the value of liberty.

I also have to add that David's disposition towards people in general comes across in his writings, and makes his posts something I look forward to, whether I agree with them or not.

While I'm perfectly willing to have Bryan live in his bubble, it does weaken his authority when making policy recommendations that will affect us all.

andy writes:
I just think that burden of proof is met in more cases than you do.

I just had a discussion with a friend I consider intelligent. It was over a few issues - ban on smoking in restaurants, 'self-sufficiency in food' and regulation of foreign prices of mobile calls (EU). The problem I had with him is that he was inconsistent, used undefined terms and was unaware of how markets work. He was even unaware of assumptions he was making (i.e. oligopolies should be regulated, 'this' is regulation - how do you know this particular regulation will make things better? surprise....).

Such discussion is unfortunately quite typical; but it may be selection bias - as libertarianism is not that popular, people agreeing with these ideas usually had to think quite a lot about it so they end up being more consistent than the rest of population.

Greg G writes:

Tom West gets it exactly right in my opinion.

The biggest mistake non-Libertarians make is failing to realize that every choice comes with unseen opportunity costs.

The biggest mistake Libertarians make is thinking that one value always trumps all others.

Libertarians usually ask the right questions but they often get the wrong answers in my opinion. But asking the right questions is a huge positive contribution. There is no surer way to get the wrong answer to a problem than to ask the wrong question about it.

I also agree that I find David's basic disposition toward people and problems to be appealing even when I don't feel that way about his conclusions.

Greg G writes:

And andy puts his finger on another consistent difference between Libertarians and non-Libertarians.

Libertarians are much more focused on having one big consistent solution that cuts through the Gordian Knot of all complex ethical dilemmas.

Non-libertarians expect that, in a complex world where we have many competing values, trying to decide things with a single principle has the potential to confuse things as often as it clarifies them. It is not a matter of who had to think about it more. (And if it was, the simpler and more "consistent" position would be the one requiring less thinking.)

Libertarians think they are being consistent because they are always clear in their own minds what they think liberty requires. But you never find two Libertarians who always agree when you get down to specific cases rather than grand principles. In real life disputes both parties usually think they are the victim and the other is the aggressor. Libertarianism provides no non-violent resolution to such a conflict. The result is that somebody gets coerced while both parties congratulate themselves on how consistently they have stuck to their principles.


Eric Falkenstein writes:

@David
Its not obvious what the bet could be, especially if we constrain it to, say, 20 years tops.

andy writes:

Greg, I just wanted my friend to formulate a consistent argument why something should be banned. My friend used terms he himself was unable to define and applied general principles while refusing to apply them generally. When I pointed it out I got an answer resembling yours about complexity and different assumptions(which, when asked, were not clarifief).
Is the conclusion that using logic is a matter of opinion?

Greg G writes:

andy,

Logic only settles things when you agree on common premises. Libertarians and non-Libertarians do not share common premises. One side thinks that a single principle should trump all others and the other side doesn't.

One of many possible illogical notions is thinking that logic should be able to settle all disputes.

Many important words and terms are impossible to define precisely. "Life," "love" and "consciousness" just to name a few. This can indeed make discussions frustrating but I don't think communication is improved by pretending otherwise.

andy writes:
Logic only settles things when you agree on common premises

Greg, that's what I was told too. So I asked the friend to state the premises. I wasn't given any. And this is not about precise definition; this is about totally imprecise, but at least "some" definition.

Particular example: I was told that smoking should be banned in restaurants because of public health concerns. I asked him to define which issues fall under the scope of 'public health' - and the definition was something like 'health in general'. This friend is doing a sport that many people find 'extreme' and that is in a sense quite dangerous; so I asked him if the state should ban this sport. I was told that he was definitely not saying anything like that. So I insisted on him to somehow define 'public health' so that this sport wouldn't fall there; I didn't get any definition - instead he started to move to different arguments (btw that is very typical).

In the end I was told that I have different premises. It can be true; and it can be false. You can always say this, even if you are totally inconsistent and unable to reason. I didn't require him to reason from the same premises as me; I just required consistency.

And I would say this is very typical example. Yes, some libertarians are too dogmatic, however for most non-extreme things they are at least consistent with their premises. Unlike grand majority of non-libertarians.

Greg G writes:

andy,

It is entirely possible that your friend, like most people, just isn't very good at making logical or consistent arguments.

If I had to guess (and I do have to guess not having been there) I would say he probably thinks that smoking in restaurants involves public health because it necessarily causes other members of the public to have to also inhale whatever smoke is produced. In contrast, many (but not all) extreme sports can be done without increasing the risks that other members of the public are exposed to.

I have known Libertarians who are almost always rigorously logical and I have also known Libertarians who simply use the term to describe the fact that they always think they should have the liberty to do whatever it is they want to do.

Being logical is better than being illogical but it is no guarantee of being right. And being consistent is usually better than being inconsistent but is also no guarantee of being right.

BZ writes:

[comment removed for foul language. --Econlib Ed.]

andy writes:

Greg...

I would say he probably thinks that smoking in restaurants involves public health because it necessarily causes other members of the public to have to also inhale whatever smoke is produced.

Yes, this is a prime example how to avoid definition of scope of "public health", yet make an impression that it is an answer to the question. Do you see that? And that's what irritates me so often when speaking non-libertarians - the arguments are muddy, illogical, inconsistent, deficient. They make it up as they need it, because there is no general principle they could base it on.

Being logical is better than being illogical but it is no guarantee of being right. And being consistent is usually better than being inconsistent but is also no guarantee of being right.

No, an illogical or inconsistent argument is wrong. The original proposition may be right, but the argument is still wrong. So when I ask non-libertarians 'why do you want to ban X', the proper answer may be: it feels right. An illogical or inconsistent answer is wrong, however 'banning it' may be the right thing to do.

Greg Jaxon writes:
better than the original article
We're all complimented! So I'll bring it back to the societal bubble man's mindset: David says he and Bryan see humanity differently. The two Gregs here may be at similar antipodes. At the risk of overusing references to Genesis as a metaphor for how we view human nature I want to recall the "mark of Cain". There may well be two sorts of human animals - some who naturally aggress and others who're naturally pacific. If so, there may never be an absolute common ground for morality to which they'll agree. And our societal bubbles will each have a different bias based on how closely we've come to know the marked sort of Man.

Yes, Greg G. I try to think in binary, but I've worked in EE long enough to know that 1s and 0s are an artificial and somewhat arbitrary reading of analog reality. So I try to stay flexible, while still trying hard to understand the world one bit at a time. I don't really believe there is a non-/Libertarian dichotomy.

ThomasH writes:

James,
If by coercion you took money from "everyone" to pay for the education of "all" children I'd judge your action by a different standard than if by coercion you took money from Ms. Y to pay for the education of your children. If Libertarians do not see that as an important difference, then maybe there is not as much overlap in moral perceptions as is here being claimed.

Greg G writes:

andy,

You are missing the main point here. I am rejecting the idea that there is a single "general principle" that will resolve most disputes. That being the case, it cannot be inconsistent for me to be unable to give you the very thing I am telling you does not exist.

I am aware you think that you are in possession of such a principle but I believe that is just a conceit. When you get down to specific disputes BOTH SIDES normally think the other is the aggressor. This is true whether or not both sides are self-identified Libertarians.

For non-Libertarians it is not the case that there is "no general principle." There are lots of general principles and they often clash with each other.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tom West,
I also have to add that David's disposition towards people in general comes across in his writings, and makes his posts something I look forward to, whether I agree with them or not.
Thank you so much, Tom.
I also agree that I find David's basic disposition toward people and problems to be appealing even when I don't feel that way about his conclusions.
Thanks also, Greg.

Tom West writes:

The biggest mistake Libertarians make is thinking that one value always trumps all others.

Why would that be a mistake? It doesn't match my values, but I'd be slightly taken aback by someone calling my personal values "a mistake".

Bedarz Iliaci writes:

Prof Henderson,
The right to punish an offender lies with the State. In fact, this is the precise reason why State exists--to carry out justice in a community.

This right is not ceded by the individuals to the State. It can not be ceded for no individual possesses this right.

If someone steals from you, you have the right to recover your property. But you do not have right to punish him. All moral traditions agree on this. And libertarians have not come up with a viable alternative or even a theory. Even the crucial problem is not clearly seen.

andy writes:
I am aware you think that you are in possession of such a principle but I believe that is just a conceit. When you get down to specific disputes BOTH SIDES normally think the other is the aggressor.

That's the particular case with the smoking ban. The problem is that when you ask the non-libertarian to define his terms, to state his premises, and then you try to reason from his premises, you still wouldn't conclude there is agression. So just to illustrate how the discussion could (and usually does) continue:

me: define public health
nl: health in general
me: ok, so extreme sports are a matter of public health and should be banned?
nl: (something about him not saying that even when it clearly follows from his definition)... it's when somebody hurts somebody else
me: ok, what about living kidney donors? Is the surgeon a criminal? What about sports such as football?
nl: that's something different! (again it follows from the definition....after some discussion).. when somebody hurts somebody else without his consent

And on and on and on. No concept, no general idea, just define the terms when they suit them. It starts being funny when you confront them with facts that don't suit them and they start refusing these facts or when they start arguing that they themselves are totally incompetent (there is a sign 'smoking premises' on the restaurant; no, there is not; yes there is and it is a law and you can ask the waiter...). I am not making this up.

Of course if you define your terms to suit particular situation, you will easily conclude that there is aggression - but the problem is that if they have no general principle (which you said they don't have) it mostly boils down to 'feel good' arguments.

What I don't like about many libertarians is that they have a few 'simple' general ideas and they apply them without regard to other general ideas, up to extreme (where things are not working with any set of ideas anyway). However, the solution is not discarding general ideas and apply them generally; the solution is having more principles and try to apply them consistently; it often becomes a matter of degree (how much is 'much' or 'little'). But this is not what I hear from most non-libertarians.

Greg G writes:

Tom West,

If you'd be "taken aback by someone calling (your) personal values a 'mistake' " then you should be taken aback by the original post here.

Despite his characteristically polite language, David is claiming that, if you are not a Libertarian, you are likely to be using rationalization to justify a double standard. I'm pretty sure that is meant to be understood as a mistake in the application of your values.

I think it is a mistake believe that one value trumps all others in all situations because it necessarily leads to other values being neglected. Having the Non-agression Principle trump all other values is all you need to get to the world of Ayn Rand.

Greg G writes:

andy,

We have a much more fundamental disagreement here than the one about Libertarianism. We have a disagreement about how language works.

Word meanings are emergent and conventional and far from universal. Any good dictionary will give you may several possible meanings for most interesting words and even those don't nearly describe all actual usages.

Wittgenstein probably studied this problem more deeply than anyone else. He started with a picture theory of language. He started by believing that a rigorous and careful use of language might result in the ability to communicate with mathematical precision. This project died a horrible death. He finally concluded that language is conventional all the way down. He concluded that language was best understood as a game where some common rules apply but everyone plays somewhat differently.

His best metaphor was when he said that a "family resemblance" is the thing that unites various usages of the same word. Does this mean that discussing things like values can be difficult and frustrating sometimes? You bet it does.

But it won't help to have unrealistic expectations. If you think the Non-aggression Principle can solve all ethical disputes then try offering us an application of it that settles the abortion question just among Libertarians who believe in the NAP.

MingoV writes:

Mark V Anderson writes:

Mingo -- I'd like to see that study that indicates most folks will do a "wrong" act if they can get away with it. I think it must depend on the act.

There have been numerous psychology studies showing that many "normal" people will steal when they believe they cannot be identified as the thief. Cheating in school is hard to detect, and surveys consistently show that approximately two-thirds of college students have cheated at least once, and 20-40% cheat frequently. The percentage of people who falsify income taxes is unknown but probably high. Many contractors cheat and defraud their customers by over-billing, charging for a high-quality item but installing a cheap item, and performing substandard work. Auto mechanics find nonexistent problems and bill for parts and labor when all they did was clean off some bolt heads so it looks like they accessed the parts. A sneakier approach used by car dealers is to claim that a part is worn to the point where it needs replacing, when the part would perform without problems for thousands of miles of additional driving. Some people defraud insurers by overvaluing items, insuring nonexistent items, or reporting a theft that didn't occur. Many people have minor injuries (or no injuries) at their workplace and claim prolonged injuries (often with the connivance of a clinician who takes a fee or a cut of the workman's compensation award). Lots of people receiving unemployment benefits, Medicaid, SNAPS, etc. lied to get or keep those benefits. In the past few years, at least half a million people who used up their unemployment benefits suddenly acquired a disability, typically a mood disorder or injured back.

Is that enough examples?

Mark V Anderson writes:

I think we are quickly running out of time to post to this thread, but since you posted just a few hours ago, I will respond here.

I think the issue comes down to these people committing what YOU think are "wrong" acts. And in many cases I agree. But few will commit what they consider to be "wrong" acts. At least not "major wrong" acts. Almost everyone has a moral code that they will not cross unless they are desperate. But it is true that these codes can be quite different for different people.

[As an aside: Comment threads are usually open for 15 days, so you've got plenty of time. And I can hold the thread open longer if there's a discussion of interest going on. So, don't feel time-constrained. --Econlib Ed.]

andy writes:

Greg, I never said non-agression principle solves everything. However, when somebody says 'I want to ban smoking in restaurants because it is a matter of public health', I expect him to be able to roughly define what 'public health' is, to be able to show that smoking in restaurants does indeed fall into this category and to actually stick to the general principle he himself stated as a reason to ban smoking in restaurants in the first place.

Yes, words have different meaning. However I expect the person saying the word has rough idea what the word means. If they don't, they are talking garbage. And that's exactly what many non-libertarians do.

Greg G writes:

Well andy, if Libertarians are so much better at arguing for their views isn't it hard to explain why there are so few of them? Shouldn't that be a big advantage in the battle for hearts and minds?

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