Why We Fight (the Power)

The Stanford prison experiment shows that if you give average people power over others, an alarmingly high percentage will abuse that power. The Milgram experiment shows that if average people are commanded by a perceived authority to commit atrocities, an alarmingly high percentage will obey.

On a cheerier note, Axelrod’s data show that average people, without any central authority to coerce them into cooperation, will nonetheless tend to cooperate to mutual benefit.

chain gangFor libertarians, the principal moral of these findings is clear: the prevailing ideology has grossly underestimated the dangers of, and grossly overestimated the need for, government. If people tend to play badly with others when coercive authority is present (be that power their own à la Stanford or someone else’s à la Milgram), but tend to play well with others when coercive authority is absent, it’s clear what the problem is.

But there’s a further left-libertarian moral, because it’s not merely coercive authority that is shown to be problematic by the Stanford and Milgram experiments. The jailors in the Stanford experiment had no power to force their prisoners to stay; and the authorities in the Milgram experiment had no tool of compulsion more imposing than a lab coat. Neither had the backing of any legal sanctions. Nor did they have so much as the power to fire anyone from a job. Yet such authority as existed was still abused, and still obeyed.

The moral is clear: even absent coercive enforcement, there is a tendency for people both to abuse authority when they have it, and to acquiesce, indeed become complicit, in its abuse by others. Hence the assumption, common among some right-libertarians, that authority and hierarchy are fine and dandy so long as they don’t involve literal forcible compulsion, seems dubious.

[Hopefully unnecessary clarification: No, I am not saying that non-forcible forms of authority are rights-violations, nor that they should be combated by forcible means appropriate to such violations, nor again that those who wield non-forcible authority should be hurled into the Pit of Azathoth, there to boil and burn for all eternity in His howling, bubbling chaos. The solution to noncoercive authority is not coercive authority, any more than the cure for flu is pneumonia.]

If people have a harmful tendency that manifests itself in certain circumstances, then the appropriate response is obviously to try to a) reduce the strength of the tendency, and b) reduce the frequency of the triggering circumstances.

The tendency to abuse and/or obey authority may be too ingrained in human nature (or, more accurately: in the human situation) to be completely eliminated, but cultural factors can certainly reduce or exacerbate it. In our own culture, despite lip service (and, admittedly, often more than lip service) to anti-authoritarian values, the legitimacy of authority is constantly reinforced via everything from political propaganda and tv cop shows to the structure of school and workplace. This is one reason that left-libertarians often stress the need to promote anti-authoritarian moral attitudes that go beyond mere opposition to rights-violations. In the case of the Milgram experiments, part of the motivation for those who went along with the orders seems to have been the fear of embarrassment at the prospect of being the only one not to conform to what was “expected” and treated by others as normal; the inculcation of individualist ethical values would be a useful corrective here. (For a related point, see Christine Silk’s Randian take on Why Did Kitty Genovese Die?)

anarchists throwing flowersThe other prong of the left-libertarian response is to decrease the frequency of those situations in which tendencies to abuse and/or obey authority is manifested, by working to reduce the prevalence of authority. Even if the elimination of all noncoercive hierarchy is not possible (and perhaps not even desirable), we could certainly do with quite a bit less of it. This is one reason that left-libertarians care, to right-libertarians’ bafflement, about combating such things as the hierarchical structure of the workplace.

Left-libertarians also think that such hierarchical structures are made more likely by various form of state intervention that socialise diseconomies of scale and render the labour market oligopsonistic; but that’s a separate point. Actually there are at least three linkages between statism and workplace hierarchies. On the one hand, statism promotes workplace hierarchies (so the two are linked via consequence thickness). On the other hand, workplace hierarchies, by reinforcing the culture of hierarchy and authority, promote statism (so the two are linked via strategic thickness). Hence statism and workplace hierarchies are part of an interlocking, mutually reinforcing system that needs to be combated as a whole. But on the, um, third hand, even apart from causal connections the two are linked by grounds thickness – i.e., workplace hierarchies are wrong for (some of) the same reasons that government-enforced power is wrong. The fact that government power tends to get abused is not the only reason for opposing it (not for us natural-rights types, anyway), but it’s certainly one reason to oppose it; and the Stanford and Milgram experiments show us (if the daily workplace experience of millions of people somehow, mysteriously, wasn’t convincing enough already) that this reason for opposing government power applies to private, non-forcible hierarchies as well. (And ditto of course for other disorders of hierarchy such as male supremacy, white supremacy, and hetero-supremacy, even when these are not propped up directly by force both governmental and “freelance.”)

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31 Responses to Why We Fight (the Power)

  1. Aster April 26, 2009 at 3:15 pm #

    Firefox 3.0.9 MacIntosh

    Well said! Thank you.

    “…those who wield non-forcible authority should be hurled into the Pit of Azathoth, there to boil and burn for all eternity in His howling, bubbling chaos.”

    No comments; I merely wish to state my appreciation of this line.

  2. Robert Paul April 26, 2009 at 3:18 pm #

    Firefox 3.0.8 Windows XP

    Good post. I believe the points you make against hierarchy also apply to schools – not just state schools but truly private schools as well. Even noncoercive hierarchical schools would be prone to serious problems, especially when children are involved.

  3. Sheldon Richman April 26, 2009 at 4:15 pm #

    Firefox 3.0.9 Windows XP

    Bravo! Bravo! Magnificent!

  4. Black Bloke April 26, 2009 at 4:49 pm #

    Safari MacIntosh

    …the inculcation of individualist ethical values would be a useful corrective here.

    On that note I’d like to link to a very good piece that I read over at the Libertarian Nation Foundation site: Myths for a Free Nation

    10th Anniversary too.

    • Roderick April 26, 2009 at 5:07 pm #

      Firefox 3.0.8.NETCLR3.5.30729 Windows XP

      Thanks for the plug. If I were writing that now I’d be a bit more cautious about some of my chronological claims. In Egypt, for example, it’s not clear that the Memphite theology (wherein a Zoroastrian/Pythagorean/Judaic-style creator god, Ptah, imposes order on a distinct chaos) is of significantly more recent origin than the Heliopolitan theology (wherein the gods arise out of Nun, the primordial chaos-water).

      • John Higgins April 26, 2009 at 7:17 pm #

        Firefox 3.0.8 Linux Mint 5

        I would also propose that the uniformity found in e.g. L. Neil Smith’s novels is justifiable three-fold: first, we are experiencing only snapshots of the world at large (nearly all of The Probability Broach occurs in Laporte); second, given the freeing of different social forms to compete it isn’t unlikely that there will be a dominant culture; third and most significant, because the book is a rhetorical device, the author will of course give their views the lion’s share of attention.

  5. Charles H. April 26, 2009 at 5:02 pm #

    Firefox 3.0.9 MacIntosh

    There’s actually some question about the validity of the Stanford Prison Experiment, as well as other famous experiments that are often cited as examples of mindless conformity. I haven’t seen a critical analysis of the Milgram shock experiments, but it might be worth looking into.

    • Roderick April 26, 2009 at 5:11 pm #

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      Thanks for the links.

  6. John Higgins April 26, 2009 at 7:06 pm #

    Firefox 3.0.8 Linux Mint 5

    The problem is, we can bring about by direct action a world absent coercive authority. There’s ways to make people stop being coercive. There are no ways, though, to MAKE people stop yielding critical thought to people in lab coats (or priests’ collars, or those who can wave a diploma around).

    That’s why the right-libertarians (in a very general sense) are correct without in any way undermining left-libertarianism. A fully-libertarian society will have to be organic and pseudo-spontaneous (we can aid it, but we can’t -make- it happen), but a generally-libertarian society (absent institutionalized coercion) can be -built-.

    • Roderick April 26, 2009 at 8:02 pm #

      Firefox 3.0.9 Windows XP

      Can you explain the difference? Because so far I don’t see it. Part of the problem is that I’m not sure who “we” is. I, all by myself, don’t have the power to stop people from being coercive (except for whatever handful I could hope to shoot before they shot me). So the only way I know to stop people from being coercive is to promote ideas that help to build a culture in which people are both less willing to coerce and more willing to resist coercion. But that’s also the only way I know to promote a culture in which people are both less willing to exercise, and more willing to resist the exercise of, noncoercive authority too. So I don’t see the difference.

      Maybe you mean that if enough people resisted, it would make the effective exercise of coercive authority impossible. That’s true. But it’s equally true that if enough people resisted, it would make the effective exercise of noncoercive authority impossible too. So what am I missing?

  7. Soviet Onion April 27, 2009 at 8:11 am #

    Firefox 3.0.9.NETCLR3.5.30729 Windows XP

    Best . . . post . . . ever!

    • Leo T. Magnificent April 27, 2009 at 9:07 am #

      MSIE 7.0 Windows XP

      :’)

  8. Stephan Kinsella April 27, 2009 at 9:43 pm #

    Firefox 3.0.10 MacIntosh

    Roderick, of course, with a few qualifications and nit-picks–I agree–heroic post.

    Apropros nothing, I’m thinking a good name for a band (or blog) would be: QUA LIBERTARIAN.

    • Roderick April 27, 2009 at 10:31 pm #

      Firefox 3.0.9 Windows XP

      heroic post

      Thank you for recognising the extreme dangers I faced in heroically adding a post to my blog — perils running the gamut from carpal tunnel syndrome to electrocution (the latter in the event of spilling my cold refreshing beverage on my computer).

  9. Peter G. Klein April 27, 2009 at 10:00 pm #

    Chrome 1.0.154.59 Windows XP

    Roderick, I’m glad you added the hopefully unnecessary clarification in square brackets, because it wasn’t unnecessary for me. Perhaps I am slow, but could you please explain (or refer me to an explanation) why, according to your approach, non-coercive forms of authority are not rights-violations, and why coercion is not justified in response? If, e.g., the “hierarchical structure of the workplace” does not constitute a violation of anyone’s rights, are you saying that your opposition to it is merely a subjective preference? If you have a taste for egalitarianism, and somebody else has a taste for (private) hierarchy, then what of it? Or is your argument primarily the consequentialist, slippery-slope argument that it’s but a small step from corporate manager to concentration-camp guard? If so, is this a necessary progression, or just a historically contingent, empirical tendency? Couldn’t one just as easily say, along similar lines, that by teaching people that all forms of authority are wrong, they will leap to the conclusion that it’s OK to use coercion to resist non-coercive authority? That’s a historical conjecture, of course, but so is the claim that accepting non-coercive authority leads to the acceptance of coercive authority. I’m sure I’m simply misunderstanding your main argument, so could you please direct me to the appropriate sources?

    • Roderick April 27, 2009 at 10:25 pm #

      Firefox 3.0.9 Windows XP

      Well, let’s take this in pieces. So, to start:

      If, e.g., the “hierarchical structure of the workplace” does not constitute a violation of anyone’s rights, are you saying that your opposition to it is merely a subjective preference?

      Your question seems to rest on the premise that justice (meaning, in this context, the part of morality that’s concerned with rights) is the only part of morality that’s objective, and all the rest of morality is subjective. So are you assuming that, and if so, why?

      • Roderick April 27, 2009 at 10:39 pm #

        Firefox 3.0.9 Windows XP

        Okay, I’ll add one more point now:

        Or is your argument primarily the consequentialist, slippery-slope argument that it’s but a small step from corporate manager to concentration-camp guard?

        That argument (or the argument that’s a parody of) would be an instance of a strategic-thickness argument. But I also use consequence-thickness, application-thickness, and grounds-thickness arguments.

      • Peter G. Klein April 27, 2009 at 11:05 pm #

        Chrome 1.0.154.59 Windows XP

        Ah, the mark of a skilled professor, responding to a question by posing another question!

        Could you simply clarify for me whether you think non-coercive hierarchy is or is not a rights violation? If it is not a rights violation, is it still immoral? If it is immoral, what means of opposing it are not themselves rights violations or otherwise immoral? You hint in the bracketed part of your post that these are obvious points not needing elaboration. I’m just asking for elaboration.

        You didn’t (yet) address my competing consequentialist concern, which is that most people will understand the call for non-coercive resistance to non-coercive hierarchy as a call for coercive resistance to non-coercive hierarchy.

        • Roderick April 27, 2009 at 11:20 pm #

          Firefox 3.0.9 Windows XP

          I’m not sure why you find my positions so mysterious. My views on rights are, apart from a few minor tweaks, pretty straightforwardly Rothbardian — arguably more so than Walter Block, even. But okay:

          Could you simply clarify for me whether you think non-coercive hierarchy is or is not a rights violation?

          It is not a rights-violation.

          If it is not a rights violation, is it still immoral?

          I’d say a wide range of instances of it are immoral.

          If it is immoral, what means of opposing it are not themselves rights violations or otherwise immoral?

          Moral suasion, boycotts, building alternative institutions — the usual.

          You didn’t (yet) address my competing consequentialist concern, which is that most people will understand the call for non-coercive resistance to non-coercive hierarchy as a call for coercive resistance to non-coercive hierarchy.

          I don’t think much weight can be placed on the mere danger of my view’s being misunderstood. To what view would that not be an objection?

  10. Peter G. Klein April 27, 2009 at 11:39 pm #

    Chrome 1.0.154.59 Windows XP

    Thanks. What’s mysterious (to me) is your bundling of all this with libertarianism. The “strategic-thickness,” “consequence-thickness,” “application-thickness,” and “grounds-thickness” arguments strike me as pretty insubstantial, to the extent I understand them. The grounds-thickness argument, for example — “Sure, private hierarchy is logically consistent with libertarianism, but it’s weird!” — seems like an assertion, not an argument.

    I understood your main argument in the post above to be a purely pragmatic, psychological one. You claim that “even absent coercive enforcement, there is a tendency for people both to abuse authority when they have it, and to acquiesce, indeed become complicit, in its abuse by others.” In that context, it seems fair to counter with other tendencies, for example the tendency to jump from peaceful resistance to private hierarchy to coercive resistance. If you say to Leftists, “You are right to oppose the oppression of the workers by the bosses, but by the way, please only use moral suasion, boycotts, and alternative institution-building to express your opposition,” what part of that message are they *likely* to hear?

    • Roderick April 28, 2009 at 12:02 am #

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      The grounds-thickness argument, for example — “Sure, private hierarchy is logically consistent with libertarianism, but it’s weird!”

      Well, that’s not the argument, it’s more like a tag for identifying the argument. Reducing pages of argument to a one-liner is of course going to look a bit unsatisfying.

      If you say to Leftists, “You are right to oppose the oppression of the workers by the bosses, but by the way, please only use moral suasion, boycotts, and alternative institution-building to express your opposition,”

      But again, that’s a shorthand cartoon version of what we say to leftists. Anyway, your argument against left-libertarianism would work just as well libertarianism as such, no? After all, aren’t people constantly misinterpreting libertarianism as being either a variant of statist conservatism, or a variant of statist liberalism, or some chaotic lawless version of anarchism?

      In any case, talking about how institutions and practices shape a culture seems to me a rather different thing from talking about how people might misunderstand an argument.

    • Rad Geek April 28, 2009 at 2:45 am #

      Firefox 3.0.9 Windows XP

      Peter:

      The “strategic-thickness,” “consequence-thickness,” “application-thickness,” and “grounds-thickness” arguments strike me as pretty insubstantial, to the extent I understand them. The grounds-thickness argument, for example — “Sure, private hierarchy is logically consistent with libertarianism, but it’s weird!” — seems like an assertion, not an argument.

      Peter, are you referring here to the paragraph on authoritarianism in Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin, under the heading of “Thickness from grounds”, which begins “Consider the conceptual reasons that libertarians have to oppose authoritarianism, not only as enforced by governments but also as expressed in culture, business, the family, and civil society. …”?

      If so, I’m not surprising you find the argument unsatisfying, because that’s an extremely elliptical capsule version of the argument. It’s intended to illustrate the kind of argument that you would make for a commitment from grounds, not to give a full-on account of the argument for libertarian concern with non-coercive authoritarianism. A fuller version, with the details tricked out, would require a lot more space than I had available in that part of that particular article (which was written for print in The Freeman, and hence subject to constraints of length, and which was primarily about the varieties of thickness, not primarily about making the case for all the details of my own particular thick conception of libertarianism).

      There’s a bit longer discussion of the same topic in my “Liberty, Equality, Solidarity” essay in the Long/Machan Anarchism/Minarchism anthology (particularly if you include, as background, the section on equality), which you may or may not find more satisfying.

      Whether or not you find it more satisfying, though, what I’m more interested in is whether or not you accept the form of argument discussed. Specifically, an argument in which the arguer demonstrates 1. that the best reason to be a libertarian is some foundational principle X (Aristotelian natural law, rational egoism, Jeffersonian political equality, whatever your view may be); 2. that principle X implies not only that libertarianism is true, but also some other consequent, Y; and, therefore, 3. a libertarian, qua libertarian, has reason to believe in Y as well as libertarianism, even though denying Y is not inconsistent with libertarianism per se, because denying Y would be inconsistent with the reasons that justify libertarianism. (Hence, as I say, libertarians can reject Y without being inconsistent but they can’t reject it without being unreasonable.)

      So, do you accept that form of argument as a legitimate one? If so, then great; that was the main purpose of the discussion, and presumably also the main purpose of Roderick’s link to my essay. If not, then what’s the problem with it?

  11. Neverfox April 28, 2009 at 12:05 pm #

    Firefox 3.0.8 Windows XP 64-bit/Server 2003

    This (great) post offers me a good opportunity to ask you a bit of a devil’s advocate question that I’ve been meaning to ask for some time. In your LvMI lectures on ethics, you gave an example of stealing a grape on the one hand and systematically undermining someone emotionally and mentally until they were a codependent pile of goo (I paraphrase) on the other hand. The former is a rights-violation that can be met with force (albeit very limited by way of proportionality) and the latter is non-forcible. You made the point that the latter was much worse morally but still didn’t permit a violent response, even a proportional one (if such a distinction can be made without begging the question).

    The question is why should this division be of primary importance when it seems that all one needs is a scale to measure moral import and a rule of proportionality? Force with force and non-force with non-force has a certain symmetry but so does big with big and small with small (proportion). What would be the unintended consequences from a libertarian perspective of saying that the non-forcible coercion above is so bad that a little shoving or a good slap from Cher is not out of line? If mild force is not disproportionate to the action (and perhaps you think it is), why does one need to refer to the force/non-force dichotomy to determine the legitimacy of the response?

    A related question is why should we expect initiatory force to always be physical (or the threat of the physical)? This seems to underestimate what human will and intention is capable of doing to achieve an end of power. So again it seems to create an odd hierarchy where all physical violence is placed above all non-physical coercion even though this may not match the moral ranking of the action. There is a tension here, to me, and I’m hoping you can help me understand why your view of libertarian ethics requires both the force/non-force division as well as the proportionality. I’m confident it’s not because you knew going in that you wanted to arrive there but rather than you think it is entailed in something more fundamental.

    • Roderick April 28, 2009 at 3:53 pm #

      Firefox 3.0.9.NETCLR3.5.30729 Windows XP

      Well, the short answer is: using force against someone (where theft is indirect force) constitutes a kind of appropriation of the other person, which even if milder than some other kind of harm, count as an invasion or trespass into their personal boundaries and so seems to me to fall into a different category. The right to use force against someone comes not from the fact that they’ve hurt you badly, but from the fact that they’re in your personal space, as it were — so that kicking them out of your space is just a matter of you doing stuff inside your own domain. (On the boundary stuff see this.) To allow force against harms that simply involve a person doing stuff within his or her own personal boundary would be to go beyond defensive force to actually treating the other harm-causer as one’s property.

      • Neverfox April 28, 2009 at 4:34 pm #

        Firefox 3.0.8 Windows XP 64-bit/Server 2003

        Thanks, Roderick. That’s a helpful encapsulation. And thanks also for the link. I’ve been wanting to read that paper.

        • Roderick April 28, 2009 at 4:42 pm #

          Firefox 3.0.9.NETCLR3.5.30729 Windows XP

          There are some others here.

  12. Neverfox April 28, 2009 at 10:50 pm #

    Flock 2.0.2 Windows Vista

    Wow, I’ve read more of these than I would have thought. All of the links in one place though…brilliant! Wait until everyone on the interwebz catches on to this concept.

    Too bad that you have no incentive to express your writer’s voice in this current environment of <a href=”http://insteadofablog.wordpress.com/2009/04/27/bejabbers/”ineffectually short copyrights.

  13. Anon73 April 29, 2009 at 12:33 am #

    Firefox 3.0.10 Windows XP

    I personally favor the strategic-thickness argument for a simple reason: Any society that has tons of private hierarchy and respect for libertarian rights is not going to have both of these for very long.

    Chomsky has criticized libertarians for this before, to wit: We could imagine a world where everybody’s rights were respected and also one person owns 90% of the wealth and basically has the power to choose who starves and who is fed. The temptation to abuse that sort of power is overwhelming, and with people jockeying for favors, suffering from the loss of favors, and the massive police force necessary to protect large tracts of privately owned land, etc I doubt the society would respect rights in the long term.

  14. Mike Gogulski May 2, 2009 at 6:49 am #

    Firefox 2.0.0.12 Windows XP

    Persuasive. I feel broadened. Thanks!

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    Hopefully Unnecessary Clarification of the Day…

    Roderick Long, after suggesting that noncoercive authority (Patriarchy and all that) is a bad thing from a libertarian point of view:
    No, I am not saying that non-forcible forms of authority are rights-violations, nor that they should be combated by fo…

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