Politics Against Politics

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

I’ve argued, some would say ad nauseam, that the libertarian struggle against statist oppression needs to be integrated (or re-integrated) with traditionally left-wing struggles against various sorts of non-state oppression such as patriarchy, racism, bossism, etc.

My position finds support, albeit in a less than straightforward way, in Rothbard’s article “Contempt for the Usual” in the May 1971 issue of Libertarian Forum.

This might seem an odd article for me to cite on behalf of my leftist heresy, since the article is a sustained attack on cultural leftism generally and feminism in particular. But I maintain that Rothbard’s arguments, no doubt malgré lui, actually support my position.

Here are some crucial excerpts:

For apart from the tendency on the Left to employ coercion, the Left seems to be constitutionally incapable of leaving people alone in the most fundamental sense; it seems incapable of refraining from a continual pestering, haranguing and harassment of everyone in sight or earshot. … The Left is incapable of recognizing the legitimacy of the average person’s peaceful pursuit of his own goals and his own values in his quietly sensible life. Maoist poster Many libertarians who are enamoured of the principles of Maoism point out that, in theory at least, the decentralized communes and eternal self-and-mutual-criticism sessions are supposed to be voluntary and not imposed by violence. Even granting this point, Maoism at its best, forswearing violence, would be well-nigh intolerable to most of us, and certainly to anyone wishing to pursue a truly individualist life. For Maoism depends on a continual badgering, harassing, and pestering of every person in one’s purview to bring him into the full scale of values, attitudes, and convictions held by the rest of his neighbors. … The point is that in the Maoist world, even at its most civilized, the propaganda barrage is everywhere.

To put it another way: one crucial and permanent difference between libertarians and the Left is in their vision of a future society. Libertarians want the end of politics; they wish to abolish politics forever, so that each individual may live his life unmolested and as he sees fit. But the Left, in contrast, wants to politicize everything; for the Left, every individual action, no matter how trivial or picayune, becomes a “political” act, to be examined, criticized, denounced, and rehabilitated in accordance with the Left’s standards. … The Women’s Lib movement, of course, has been in the forefront of this elevating of hectoring and pestering into a universal moral obligation. …

One would hope that the free society of the future would be free, not only of aggressive violence, but also of self-righteous and arrogant nagging and harassment. “Mind your own business” implies that each person attend well to his own affairs, and allow every other man the same privilege. It is a morality of basic civility, of courtesy, of civilized life, of respect for the dignity of every individual. It does not encompass all of morality, but by God it is a necessary ingredient to a truly rational and civilized social ethic. …

The crucial point here is that those libertarians whose only philosophy is to oppose coercive violence are missing a great deal of the essence of the ideological struggles of our time. The trouble with the Left is not simply its propensity for coercion; it is also, and in some sense more fundamentally, its hatred of excellence and individuality, its hostility to the division of labor, its itch for total uniformity, and its dedication to the Universal and Permanent Pester. And as it looks around the world, it finds that the main object of its hatred is the Middle American, the man who quietly holds all of the values which it cannot tolerate. … [O]ne of the great and unfilled tasks of the rationalist intellectual, the true intellectual if you will, is to come to the aid of the bourgeoisie, to rescue the Middle American from his triumphant tormentors. … In the name of truth and reason, we must rise up as the shield and the hammer of the average American.

So how does all this support my position? Well, notice that Rothbard here treats the principle of minding one’s own business as broader than the non-aggression principle; he criticises “those libertarians whose only philosophy is to oppose coercive violence” for not recognising that minding one’s own business implies a rejection “not only of aggressive violence, but also of self-righteous and arrogant nagging and harassment,” even when such nagging and harassment involve no use of force against person or property.

Q. Do you know the women's movement has no sense of humor? A. No ... but hum a few bars and I'll fake it! In short, then, Rothbard in effect agrees that a pervasive attitude of such “intolerable” Maoist-style criticism, even if peaceful, would be a form of oppression, and one that libertarians should be concerned to combat just as much as they combat actual aggression. And this is exactly the sort of thing I’ve been saying too. Restrictive cultural attitudes and practices can be oppressive even if nonviolent, and should be combated (albeit, of course, nonviolently) by libertarians for some of the same sorts of reasons that violent oppression should be combated.

Of course, Rothbard’s point might seem to support mine only generically, not specifically – since he identifies feminism, rather than patriarchy, as an instance of the form of oppression he’s concerned to combat. As Rothbard sees it, “the Middle American, the man who quietly holds all of the values which [the Left] cannot tolerate,” is inoffensively minding his own business, while feminists and other leftists who attack his values are refusing to mind their own business, and are instead subjecting the ordinary mainstream American to “a continual badgering, harassing, and pestering … to bring him into the full scale of values, attitudes, and convictions held by the rest of his neighbors.”

I think this is the wrong way to understand the nature of the complaints that feminists and other leftists are bringing. That’s not to say, of course, that we feminists et al. are never guilty of the sort of thing Rothbard is referring to; any ideology can be, and every ideology surely has been, defended in obnoxious, officious, and intrusive ways, and feminism is no exception. But the question is whether that’s the whole story, or even the main story, with the feminist criticisms that Rothbard is talking about, and I claim it isn’t. The way to understand the criticisms that we feminists bring is to see that from our point of view it is patriarchy that refuses to leave people alone – that the process by which patriarchal attitudes are promoted, inculcated, and reinforced amounts precisely to “a continual badgering, harassing, and pestering of every person [especially women] in one’s purview to bring [her] into the full scale of [patriarchal] values, attitudes, and convictions held by the rest of [her] neighbors.”

The point of feminist criticism is thus not to politicise the reproduction of male supremacy but rather to identify the political character it already possesses, and the aim of a feminist political movement (understanding “political” here to denote any organised movement for social change, whether peaceful or violent) is to defend women against such oppression, to serve as their “shield and hammer.” And ditto, mutatis mutandis, for the defence of workers, gays, ethnic minorities, etc., against various forms of oppression which, while indeed often supported by violent means (statist or otherwise), are by no means confined to such means. To whatever extent Rothbard’s “Middle Americans” are complicit in such oppression, they are to that extent not minding their own business – and leftist attempts to correct their attitudes are then strictly defensive, in service rather than violation of “a morality of basic civility, of courtesy, of civilized life, of respect for the dignity of every individual.”

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43 Responses to Politics Against Politics

  1. Tim October 16, 2006 at 7:16 pm #

    If a libertarian collects stamps does that make stamp collecting a libertarian issue? If a Middle American is a sexist, racist, homophobic, tree hating nice person but engages with his fellow hominids on a voluntary contractual basis, Rothbard is right.

  2. Administrator October 16, 2006 at 11:45 pm #

    If a libertarian collects stamps does that make stamp collecting a libertarian issue?

    No. But what does that have to do with anything I said?

    If a Middle American is a sexist, racist, homophobic, tree hating nice person but engages with his fellow hominids on a voluntary contractual basis, Rothbard is right.

    Right about what? The passage I cited shows that Rothbard thinks a) that libertarians should oppose nonviolent as well as violent forms of oppression, and b) that feminism is one of those nonviolent forms of oppression. I agreed with Rothbard about (a) but disagreed with him about (b). So which claim of Rothbard are you supporting? (a)? (b)? Something else?

  3. Tim October 17, 2006 at 2:12 am #

    Libertarians only need agree on non-aggression principle. On issues like feminism or stamp collecting or wilderness conservation, to each his own. I agree with Rothbard and you on (a) as for (b) you are both half right but backing different halfs. Feminism and “Middle Americanism” include a mix of voluntary and coercive measures. My guess is both you and Rothbard would agree about that, the difference is the comparative evaluation as to proportions within each.

  4. Albert Esplugas October 17, 2006 at 8:41 am #

    Roderick, I copy here the comment I’ve posted in hnn’s blog:

    I don’t see why patriarchy, bossism or even racism is necessarily unlibertarian. And if it’s not, then I don’t see why we should, qua libertarians, oppose those things. Sure I oppose these attitudes / values, but if they are not, per se, incompatible with libertarianism, I can’t oppose them qua libertarian. It is conceivable a libertarian with patriarchal values, how you reconcile that with your position? He too is a libertarian, why as a libertarian has to abandon or fight against these values that are his own? Libertarians are against agression, not against “opression” (again, qua libertarians). A libertarian may support or have attitudes that you consider “opressive” and still be a principled libertarian. I think that your reasoning on this matter is confusing and flawed. You don’t need to appeal to libertarianism to oppose those things, you have to appel to human decency, common sense, moral virtue or something else. May be some of these attitudes / values usually lead to statits positions, but that, again, it’s not necessarily true, and to the extend that it is as libertarians we can fight these attitudes but always having in mind that it’s not “oppression” what we are fighting but agression. Qua libertarians (not as moral agents) the fight against these attituted can only be instrumental.

  5. Administrator October 17, 2006 at 9:58 am #

    Tim: Libertarians only need agree on non-aggression principle.

    That’s an incomplete sentence. Only need agree on the non-aggression principle — in order to what? In order to count as libertarians? Fine, I agree. In order to be consistent in recognising and applying the implications of libertarianism? There I disagree.

    I agree with Rothbard and you on (a)

    But that seems inconsistent with what you just said. For what (a) says is that libertarians need to embrace a mind-your-own-business principle that’s broader than the non-aggression principle. So how can you agree with me and Rothbard on (a) when you’ve just said that “libertarians only need agree on non-aggression principle,” which is inconsistent with (a)?

    as for (b) you are both half right but backing different halfs. Feminism and “Middle Americanism” include a mix of voluntary and coercive measures.

    It sounds to me like you’re misunderstanding Rothbard’s point. Rothard’s objection to feminism, in that article, is not that it embraces coercive measures. What he says is that feminism would be oppressive, and worthy to be combated by libertarians, even if it were completely noncoercive.

    Albert Esplugas: It is conceivable a libertarian with patriarchal values, how you reconcile that with your position? He too is a libertarian, why as a libertarian has to abandon or fight against these values that are his own? Libertarians are against agression, not against “oppression” (again, qua libertarians).

    Once again, my claim is not that a libertarian with patriarchal values doesn’t count as a libertarian. Of course he (or she) does. But I do claim that such a libertarian hasn’t fully grasped the implications of libertarian values.

    Charles Johnson, in this piece, distinguishes five different “levels on which you might claim that libertarianism ought to go along with some thicker bundle of social and cultural commitments, practices, or projects.” Let me quote the three main ones:

    Charles Johnson: There might be cases in which the bundle could be rejected without a formal contradiction to the non-aggression principle, but not without in fact interfering with its application. There are cases in which people disagree over the line where my rights end and yours begin; and libertarians might argue that some thick bundles need to be preferred over others in order to avoid conceptual blinders against certain rights or forms of aggression. Think of the feminist criticism of the traditional division between the “private” and the “political” sphere and those who draw it in such a way that systematic violence and coercion within “families” are justified, or excused, or ignored, as something “private” and therefore less than a serious form of violent oppression. Or the way in which garden-variety collectivism prevents many non-libertarians from even recognizing taxation or legislation by a democratic government as a form of coercion in the first place. Here the bundle of commitments that libertarians need to have isn’t just a special application of libertarian principle; the argument calls in resources other than the non-aggression principle to determine just where and how the principle is properly applied. In that sense the thickness called for is thicker than entailment thickness; but the cash value of the “thick” commitments is still the direct contribution they make towards the full and complete application of the non-aggression principle. Call this “application thickness.”

    There might be cases in which a bundle is neither strictly entailed by the non-aggression principle, nor necessary for its correct application, but may be a causal precondition for implementing the non-aggression principle in the real world. Thick libertarians might suggest cases in which it’s difficult or even impossible for a free society to emerge, or survive over the long term, or flourish, without the right bundle of commitments, because the wrong bundle (say, blind obedience to traditional authority), without logically conflicting with libertarianism, might still make it very hard for libertarian ideas to get much purchase in our actual society, or for a future free society to resist a collapse into statism or civil war. Since this offers instrumental grounds for, say, individualist self-reliance to be bundled along with libertarianism, call this “instrumental thickness.” [Note: more recently Charles calls this “strategic thickness.”]

    Some bundles might be consistent with the non-aggression principle, but might undermine or contradict the deeper reasons that justify libertarian principles in the first place. Here it would be claimed that the you could accept libertarianism without the thicker bundle consistently, but that you couldn’t do so reasonably, because rejecting the bundle means rejecting the grounds for your libertarianism. Call this “grounds thickness.”

    So when I claim that libertarians qua libertarians need to oppose patriarchy and other nonviolent (or at least not-necessarily-violent) forms of oppression, what I’m claiming is that libertarianism is tied to feminism, and to cultural leftism more broadly, by application thickness, instrumental/strategic thickness, and grounds thickness. (And for some reasons why feminism in particular might count as one of the values thickly bound with libertarianism, see our piece on libertarian feminism.)

  6. Albert Esplugas October 17, 2006 at 11:47 am #

    Roderick, I think that your (and Charles Johnson’s) point coincides –partially- with my contention: “May be some of these attitudes / values usually lead to statits positions, but that, again, it’s not necessarily true, and to the extend that it is as libertarians we can fight these attitudes but always having in mind that it’s not “oppression” what we are fighting but agression. Qua libertarians (not as moral agents) the fight against these attituted can only be instrumental.” But in your insistence to fight against “oppression” qua libertarians I don’t perceive –at least not in every case, this time for exemple- a recognizition of its instrumental nature. Rather, it seems that libertarianism imply opposing and challenging oppression, that we should confront it because it is objectively evil, injust per se, and I don’t buy it. What you call oppresive attitudes or values may be others (libertarians included) consider proper or defensible values. We are not talking about rights now, but moral values. Whatever your moral values, I think you can –at least theoretically- fully grasp libertarianism and its implications. Rights are objective, moral values are subjective. You can justify objective rights (and adhere consistently to them) whatever your subjetive values (provided your values don’t champion agression), since objective rights are not grounded in your subjective values but in the nature both of human beings and the world in wich they live. Thus, I think that challenging “oppression” is not a libertarian task except to the extent that “oppression” fuels statists positions. Libertarians can oppose “oppression” for the same reason they favor political decentralization: because it may contribute to the expansion of liberty. A decentralized political organization is also illegitimate, but it is preferable because its incentive structure can promote more freedom. Likewise, patriarchal, racist… values are legitimate, as any other attitude or value, but because they usually lead to statist positions they must be confronted by libertarians. Do you agree with that analogy?

  7. quasibill October 17, 2006 at 12:41 pm #

    To me, libertarianism, if anything, is simply the recognition that a peaceful life – for everyone – is the goal. To that end, the non-agression principle is the fundamental norm that should never be abrogated. Past that, there seems to be many different internally coherent “cultural” variants on the NAP. Each of which will be fine internally. The question becomes what happens when these “cultural” variants run into each other? Return to fundamentals – the NAP. Live and let live. The more you attack the cultural assumptions underlying a specific form of “thick” libertarianism, the more you’ll do two things – 1) undermine a possibly important pillar for that form of libertarianism, thereby opening the door for the rise of statist thinking, and 2) create a “threat” to a way of living, which will create popular support for a state based solution. It’s one of those “unintended consequences” scenarios.

    I’ll go so far as to say that I’m very sympathetic to Roderick and Rad Geek’s version of thick libertarianism – given the choice between theirs and say a Gary North (not basing this on anything more than his clearly Christian outlook, so I mean no offense to Gary, whose writing I respect greatly) style thick libertarianism, I’ll choose the former, thank you. But I think both are viable and legitimate forms, that should never see each other as an “enemy”. I’d far prefer living in Gary North’s thick lib community to pretty much any other option out there. The differences in thick libertarian thought should be considered market choices, even if they appear irrational, so long as the NAP isn’t violated.

    If you’re constantly looking for a fight over culture, you’ll never achieve the ultimate goal, as I see it, which is a peaceful life for everyone.

  8. Administrator October 17, 2006 at 2:20 pm #

    Albert Esplugas: Roderick, I think that your (and Charles Johnson’s) point coincides – partially — with my contention: “May be some of these attitudes / values usually lead to statits positions, but that, again, it’s not necessarily true, and to the extend that it is as libertarians we can fight these attitudes but always having in mind that it’s not “oppression” what we are fighting but agression. Qua libertarians (not as moral agents) the fight against these attituted can only be instrumental.” But in your insistence to fight against “oppression” qua libertarians I don’t perceive– at least not in every case, this time for exemple- a recognizition of its instrumental nature.

    So, if I understand you correctly, you’re saying that you accept instrumental/strategic thickness, but you think it applies less broadly than I do. Okay, but then what about grounds thickness and application thickness? Do you accept or reject those?

    What you call oppresive attitudes or values may be others (libertarians included) consider proper or defensible values. We are not talking about rights now, but moral values.

    Well, yes, libertarians can, and obviously do, disagree about which values are oppressive. Of course libertarians also can and do disagree about which actions are rights-violating. Thus libertarians disagree about abortion, intellectual property, and so on. But in both cases, the question is: which position is correct?

    Whatever your moral values, I think you can — at least theoretically — fully grasp libertarianism and its implications.

    Okay, that I deny — since I think the various thicknesses are among the relevant “implications.”

    Rights are objective, moral values are subjective. You can justify objective rights (and adhere consistently to them) whatever your subjetive values (provided your values don’t champion agression), since objective rights are not grounded in your subjective values but in the nature both of human beings and the world in wich they live.

    Aha! This, I think, is the heart of our disagreement. You think one part of morality — namely justice (i.e., respect for rights) is objective, and that all the rest of morality is subjective! But why should anybody believe that?

    By contrast I think all of morality is objective — that morality as a whole is “not grounded in your subjective values but in the nature both of human beings and the world in which they live.” Indeed, I don’t think it’s possible to justify a theory of rights in isolation from a broader set of values. So my question to you is: why do you draw this bifurcation in the moral realm, making justice objective and all the rest of morality subjective?

    quasibill: Return to fundamentals – the NAP. Live and let live.

    But the point of my original post was that “live and let live” is broader than just the NAP.

    Let me add, though, that I don’t claim that libertarianism requires just one specific set of cultural values. I’m a generic universalist but a specific pluralist.

    The more you attack the cultural assumptions underlying a specific form of “thick” libertarianism, the more you’ll do two things – 1) undermine a possibly important pillar for that form of libertarianism, thereby opening the door for the rise of statist thinking, and 2) create a “threat” to a way of living, which will create popular support for a state based solution. It’s one of those “unintended consequences” scenarios.

    But notice that this argument you just gave is not a support for thin libertarianism. You’re actually defending a form of thick libertarianism. You’re saying that libertarianism is bound, via instrumental/strategic thickness, to a value not directly entailed by the NAP, namely the value of not criticising other thick libertarianisms. And so it seems to me that your argument self-destructs. Because if it works against my position, it works just as well against itself. That is, according to your own criticism itself, by criticising my version of thick libertarianism you’re 1) undermining a possibly important pillar for that form of libertarianism, thereby opening the door for the rise of statist thinking, and 2) creating a “threat” to a way of living, which will create popular support for a state based solution ….

    If you’re constantly looking for a fight over culture, you’ll never achieve the ultimate goal, as I see it, which is a peaceful life for everyone.

    But you can define peace narrowly, meaning non-aggression only, or you can define it broadly, meaning non-aggression plus the absence of nonviolent oppression. I think Rothbard’s article makes a persuasive case for defining it broadly (even though he and I obviously disagree vastly about the details).

  9. quasibill October 17, 2006 at 3:14 pm #

    ah, but I’m not truly criticizing your version of thick libertarianism. I’m merely stating that you shouldn’t attack other versions or advocate against them. You can claim you are right, and in fact, argue in debates that you are right, but that’s about as far as it should ever go. Any other effort at creating the cultural changes you want in a different system can, and most likely will, have unintended consequences which may get the state’s foot in the door.

    Unless I’m wrong, I don’t see your version of thick libertarianism as requiring a world cultural revolution to create the perfect libertarian man. “Panarchy”, as I’ve see you advocate, would allow you to have your form of thickness, while also allowing North style thickness to develop peacefully in its own area. To me, there are objective limits to justice, but there is a fairly large space between those limits where there can be many subjective valuations involved. However, I agree that you need a broader set of values to define justice – I only disagree that there is one set of objectively right broad values. There are several, if not many, that are internally coherent and therefore internally legitimate. Hence, Panarchy is the only defensible solution.

  10. Albert Esplugas October 17, 2006 at 3:53 pm #

    By contrast I think all of morality is objective — that morality as a whole is “not grounded in your subjective values but in the nature both of human beings and the world in which they live.” Indeed, I don’t think it’s possible to justify a theory of rights in isolation from a broader set of values. So my question to you is: why do you draw this bifurcation in the moral realm, making justice objective and all the rest of morality subjective?

    Do you think that all moral values are objetive? For or against altruism, for or against love, for or against honesty or integrity, for or against promiscuity, for or against fidelity, for or against family, for or against using force to seek restitution, for or against caring for animals, for or against caring for ecology etc etc. Do you think there is an objective response for every one of these moral issues? I think not, and I really doubt you think otherwise. May be we are talking about different things.

    I am no expert, but I tend to think that justice is objective because, in a sense, it doesn’t take part on behalf of one’s particular values but permit the pursuing of every one’s subjetive values / ends avoiding violent conflict between them. Elaboreting on this, given the nature of human beings and the world in wich we live, rights are necessary for every one to pursue his subjetive ends and live according to its values without conflicting with each other. I think I am not grounding rights in subjective values, unless favor that every one can pursue his subjetive ends peacefully is a moral value by itself. If it is, then may be I’m guilty of favoring only that broad moral value qua libertarian, but I don’t see why endorsing it would mean that I have to endorse that all morality or moral values are objective. Neither I see why to justify libertarianism consistently on terms of rights one has to opposse what you call oppression (racism, bossism, patriarchy).

  11. Albert Esplugas October 17, 2006 at 4:06 pm #

    For what (a) says is that libertarians need to embrace a mind-your-own-business principle that’s broader than the non-aggression principle.

    Let me add another question: If a racist person discriminates against blacks (as consumers or laborers) in his own business, do you think he is not minding his own business? If a man marries four women and they consent happily (and also consent to do domestic work etc.) do you think he is not minding his own business because he is exhibiting a patriarchal attitude?

  12. Anonymous2 October 17, 2006 at 6:27 pm #

    If a racist person discriminates against blacks (as consumers or laborers) in his own business, do you think he is not minding his own business? If a man marries four women and they consent happily (and also consent to do domestic work etc.) do you think he is not minding his own business because he is exhibiting a patriarchal attitude?

    I believe Long has stated before he only considers those to be “oppression” if a lot of people in a given area do them. In other words, if an employer discriminates against blacks and he is the only one doing it, no problem. But if it’s a cultural-wide practice to discriminate against the “inferior” blacks, then you start to have application- and instrumental-thickness problems, and then it becomes a duty to combat it.

  13. Administrator October 17, 2006 at 6:51 pm #

    quasibill: I’m merely stating that you shouldn’t attack other versions or advocate against them. You can claim you are right, and in fact, argue in debates that you are right, but that’s about as far as it should ever go.

    a) But what if “attacking other versions and advocating against them” is part of my version of thick libertarianism?

    b) What exactly is the line between “attacking other versions and advocating against them” (which you’re against) and “claiming you are right, and in fact, arguing in debates that you are right” (which you’re not against) — assuming neither involves coercion? What does the former involve that the latter doesn’t?

    Albert Esplugas: Do you think that all moral values are objetive? For or against altruism, for or against love, for or against honesty or integrity, for or against promiscuity, for or against fidelity, for or against family, for or against using force to seek restitution, for or against caring for animals, for or against caring for ecology etc etc. Do you think there is an objective response for every one of these moral issues?

    Yes, of course I think all those issues are objective. Your tone above is incredulous, but suppose someone said to you: do you really think all rights are objective? For or against taxation, for or against gun control, for or against securities and exchange laws, for or against zoning laws, for or against drug laws …. Presumably you’d say that of course all those are objective. So what’s the difference?

    Elaboreting on this, given the nature of human beings and the world in wich we live, rights are necessary for every one to pursue his subjetive ends and live according to its values without conflicting with each other.

    But why is that an objective value? Suppose someone says: “I like conflict.” How can you say anything against him, if you don’t believe in objective morality?

    Neither I see why to justify libertarianism consistently on terms of rights one has to opposse what you call oppression (racism, bossism, patriarchy).

    Because it would be very odd if it were a horrible horrible thing for people to be pushed around and have their lives stunted if it’s done in one way, but perfectly okay and dandy for people to be pushed around and have their lives stunted if it’s done in some other way. If people don’t matter enough for us to oppose their being oppressed, why should they matter enough for us to oppose their being aggressed against?

    If a racist person discriminates against blacks (as consumers or laborers) in his own business, do you think he is not minding his own business?

    What Anonympus2 said, more or less. See this piece by Marilyn Frye.

  14. Administrator October 17, 2006 at 6:56 pm #

    And here’s the especially relevant passage from the Frye piece:

    Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would gave trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.

    It is now possible to grasp one of the reasons why oppression can be hard to see and recognize: one can study the elements of an oppressive structure with great care and some good will without seeing the structure as a whole, and hence without seeing or being able to understand that one is looking at a cage and that there are people there who are caged, whose motion and mobility are restricted, whose lives are shaped and reduced.

  15. Tim October 17, 2006 at 8:01 pm #

    I can see Rod’s point about me misreading Rothbard, he wasn’t after all just a libertarian (in other words a normal human being).

    This idea of non-coercive oppression seems to me to be risky. The idea of ‘non-coercive oppression’ against minorities, women, gays etc. seems to be what people have in mind, but couldn’t the same argument be deployed to argue that higher prices paid by people in remote areas were a form of non-coercive oppression?

    After all here is a small group of people treated differently who may argue that the reduced economic opportunities they face is ‘unfair’. In fact they do, see the demand for state subsidised rural electrification and now a push for similar underwriting of broadband internet access. The issue however goes beyond those high profile items.

    The counter would be ‘higher transport costs etc.’, but a race discriminating or gender discriminating employer could make the same argument i.e. employing minority x members in my shop imposes an additional cost to me. The cost may be in making other workers unhappy or losing customers or just personal discomfort. Of course someone in a remote location could escape his or her non-coercive oppressed status by moving to the city, presumably that’s easier than changing sex. But you could say to aggrieved members of oppressed minority group x, ‘why not move to Minority X Town where there isn’t any non-coercive oppression’?

    I am probably being pedantic above, but in practical political terms, it is still sensible for libertarians to have something to say to feminists, gays, minorities etc beyond the free market and individual rights. I suppose this is best met by historical analyses of how state measures may have aggravated the oppressed condition. Not just overt stuff (ie apartheid) but administrative / operational stuff. For example discriminatory law enforcement.There is some empirical economic stuff that indicates that the more competitive the market the less likely employers are to bring non-functional issues (race etc) into a hiring decision. Free marketeers would note how government is the main source of monopoly and hence de facto subsidising this practice, which brings us back full circle I suppose to Rod’s point about “identifying”.

    Of course, my hypothetical argument is an indirect roundabout one that probably wouldn’t satisy anyone. Call it “trickle down anti-discrimination”. I’d argue a competitive marketplace is an anti-discrimination system that works 24 x 7, doesn’t work to civil service rules and is not subject to politician’s budgeteering, ….but I don’t think that would satisfy the aggrieved either.

    So being unsatisfied with the roundabout nature of the free market argument for competitive antidiscrimination, my aggrieved friends will probably start agitating for direct action, ie for state intervention or personal or group intimidation (if arguably only counter-intimidation), which brings us back full circle to Rothbards argument too.

  16. Administrator October 18, 2006 at 12:03 am #

    Tim: This idea of non-coercive oppression seems to me to be risky. The idea of ‘non-coercive oppression’ against minorities, women, gays etc. seems to be what people have in mind, but couldn’t the same argument be deployed to argue that higher prices paid by people in remote areas were a form of non-coercive oppression?

    It’s quite true that if we argue, correctly, that W is a form of (non-rights-violating) oppression, someone else may respond by claiming, mistakenly, that X is also a form of oppression.

    But it’s equally true that if we argue, correctly, that Y is a rights-violation, someone else may respond by claiming, mistakenly, that Z is also a rights-violation.

    But no libertarian thinks that my second scenario is a reason to give up speaking of rights-violations. So why think the first scenario is a reason to give up speaking of nonviolent oppression?

    Call it “trickle down anti-discrimination”. I’d argue a competitive marketplace is an anti-discrimination system that works 24 x 7, doesn’t work to civil service rules and is not subject to politician’s budgeteering, ….but I don’t think that would satisfy the aggrieved either.

    Well, I don’t think they should be entirely satisfied, for reasons I explain here. I would say that, for any given set of cultural attitudes, market competition is likely to produce a lower level of discrimination than any other system. But that doesn’t mean that working to change cultural attitudes, or to organize the oppressed, etc., can’t produce an even lower level. Call it sociocultural entrepreneurship.

    It’s a mistake to think the only options are “pass a law” and “let the market take care of it.” That’s not how entrepreneurs think. We are the market.

  17. Anonymous2 October 18, 2006 at 1:51 am #

    It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.

    I still haven’t heard the good Dr. Long explain why landlocking someone goes against his libertarian rights. 🙂

    Or even better: Let’s suppose that we’re living in a magic floating city and somebody comes along and rapidly constructs a perfectly spherical concrete shell (of radius r=2 mi say) surrounding your floating house in the floating city. If you try to drill through the shell at any particular place, the owner stops you at gunpoint, saying you are violating his concrete barrier. Thus we have a libertarian justification for starving someone to death. QED

  18. Sheldon Richman October 18, 2006 at 5:21 am #

    Perhaps landlocking someone would violate his rights because the perpetrator has imposed a death sentence on someone who has not himself violated rights.

  19. Albert Esplugas October 18, 2006 at 5:54 am #

    Yes, of course I think all those issues are objective. Your tone above is incredulous, but suppose someone said to you: do you really think all rights are objective? For or against taxation, for or against gun control, for or against securities and exchange laws, for or against zoning laws, for or against drug laws …. Presumably you’d say that of course all those are objective. So what’s the difference?

    The difference, I think, is that rights don’t incorporate the subjetive ends of someone in particular but permit the peacefully realization of all of them. The objectivity of economics is related to its value free nature. Similarly, ethics is in a sense value free too, because says “whatever the subjective values of people, if they want to pursue them they should have rights / follow the NAP”. Ok, what if someone don’t want to pursue them peacefully / respecting the NAP? Well, why argue at all with that person, if he is not willing to respect you? Why take him seriously if he is not demanding, by his very own actions, any reciprocity at all? Anyway, I don’t see why endorsing the end / value that all people can realize his own ends / values implies that I have to endorse that all people’s ends / values are objective. And you don’t solve the question of rights by saying that all morality is objective. You are, may I say it, begging the same question that you are posing to me: how do you prove that my subjective moral aversion to take drugs or to prostitute myself are objectively wrong?

    Besides, if all moral values are objective, why tolerate wrong values if you discover they are wrong? I think you are somewhat endangering your own libertarian position, since you are saying that all people’s subjetive ends (or moral values in particular, but I think that all conducts have a moral component) can be categorized wrong or right objectively. Others will say: “well, if I determine objectively that taking drugs is wrong, I don’t see why I have to respect the use of drugs”. On the other hand, if you say “people’s subjective ends are subjectively wrong or right. If someone values taking drugs, I can object and say that it will be harmful to him, that it is a vice or whatever, but as long as it satisfies him it is not wrong for him, and I’m in no better position to assert that his conduct is objectively wrong”. In this second case, the drug user won’t feel threatened by your position. You are not pretending to have “the objective truth”, may be some kind of loosely truth. I don’t know if I’m expressing myself clearly, I have troubles speaking in English.

    Because it would be very odd if it were a horrible horrible thing for people to be pushed around and have their lives stunted if it’s done in one way, but perfectly okay and dandy for people to be pushed around and have their lives stunted if it’s done in some other way. If people don’t matter enough for us to oppose their being oppressed, why should they matter enough for us to oppose their being aggressed against?

    I think it’s the other way around. By caring too much for the non-agressive values of people qua libertarian you are endangering your own libertarian positions. People with these non-agressive values (but nonetheless oppressive) will feel threatened not by your particular values / personal views but by your very own political philosophy. They will think that a libertarian order will be a menace to their non-agressive conducts, and actually it’s not. You are saying to them “libertarians, qua libertarians, will fight against your personal non-agressive values, but you are welcomed in a libertarian order”. It doesn’t make much sense to me. I think it’s better to fight against these oppresive values simply as moral agents and decent human beigns, not as libertarians. Furthermore, if you as a libertarian promote not only the NAP but also other kind of values, other libertarians with different values will be tempted to promote, qua libertarians, his own values, and the distintion between rights and value will be blurred.

    Libertarianism is a political philosophy and it is only concerned about justice / the legitimate use of force. Agreed, libertarianism is not only the NAP in the sense that justifiying it requires to go deeper and reason about the nature of human beings (subjective preferences, human action…) and the world (scarcity…) and to contrast the merits of a peaceful / conflict-free social order with that of a violent / conflict enhancing social order. And I tend to agree that libertarianism can go beyond the NAP in the sense that to implement the NAP may be it’s strategically useful to promote / oppose certain values. But the end of all that, qua libertarians, it’s only the NAP.

    Imagine we are in a libertarian society. The NAP reigns. Do you consider libertarians have achieved our objective, or is there something else? Imagine that in this libertarian society all individuals are passionate rothbardians. But some ot them are racists (discriminate in their property against people of other races because of that). And others have patriarchal values. But all of them are libertarians and we live in a libertarian order. Would you say still that qua libertarians we have to fight against the values of that group of “oppressive” libertarians? Why, if libertarianism has been achieved and, since its inhabitants are rothbardians, there is no risk that it will disappear any time soon? In a libertarian order, why we have to appeal to libertarianism to combat some non-agressive values instead of human decency and virtue?

  20. Albert Esplugas October 18, 2006 at 5:57 am #

    “If a racist person discriminates against blacks (as consumers or laborers) in his own business, do you think he is not minding his own business?” – What Anonympus2 said, more or less. See this piece by Marilyn Frye.

    ok Roderick, I see it. But anyway I think that the racist owner of the business or the patriarchal man are minding their own business, and your post suggests that (because of their racism / patriarchal values) they are not.

  21. Anonymous2 October 18, 2006 at 6:51 am #

    Perhaps landlocking someone would violate his rights because the perpetrator has imposed a death sentence on someone who has not himself violated rights

    No, no, that’s the whole point of the example, namely that it shows libertarian rights imply the “right” to starve someone to death. (In his Mises talk Dr. Long cites an example where a lack of rights seems to allow the same conclusion and pronounces communism a failure because of it.) Dr. Long always waves his hand about these “easement” issues, so I want a frank and clear answer: Does libertarianism imply the “right” to wall someone in so they need helicopter lifts to keep from starving, or take away most of the oxygen surrounding someone sitting in the park, wall in somebody’s floating space-station with super-funky subspace mines, etc.

  22. Anonymous2 October 18, 2006 at 7:00 am #

    Why, if libertarianism has been achieved and, since its inhabitants are rothbardians, there is no risk that it will disappear any time soon

    That would be the premise Long doesn’t agree with. If they are libertarians, but they have these oppressive “patriarchal” values then there is a risk it will disappear.

  23. quasibill October 18, 2006 at 7:14 am #

    Well, I’ve started digging by arguing with a Philosophy professor, so instead of climbing back out, I’ll just dig deeper. That’s rational, right? 🙂

    Anyway, the difference between attacking and defending is exactly the point. Attacking: “North’s (again, just making a useful strawman here) patriarchial, Biblical culture is evil, oppressive, and must be changed for there to be justice in this world.” Would North be justified in feeling threatened by such a statement?

    Defending: “Long and Johnson’s culture allows for the fullest, free-est development of each individual, empowering everyone equally. It is the best, most just culture in the world.” Would North be justified in feeling threatened by this statement?

    It’s a fine line, sure, but we draw a lot of fine lines as libertarians. The nice part is that it does derive from the NAP. (Note that I’m not necessarily saying that the “attacking” statement necessarily violates the NAP, just that it comes close enough that, as a matter of strategy, it is not a smart choice).

    As for the landlocked example – that illustrates an important point about how common law – a very nearly free market law provision process historically – dealt with very hard cases. It didn’t, until such a controversy was in front of it, and at that point, considered ALL of the circumstances. Justice in such a case would depend on all sorts of other facts, such as technology, prior actions (of all parties), and current community standards of morality.

    I think the major point is that it’s unlikely to happen in a free market (the victim is likely to not allow it to happen, and perhaps more likely, very few human beings are so sociopathic as to want to do it to another), but if it does, it’s not a refutation of property rights per se, but rather an acknowledgement that they aren’t an end unto themselves, but rather the best means yet devised to provide for a peaceful life for everyone. In extreme situations, there is nothing wrong with overriding property rights (as there were certainly common law defenses such as necessity to trespass actions).

  24. Matt Jenny October 18, 2006 at 10:13 am #

    A very interesting discussion about subjects, some of which I haven’t made up my mind about at all.

    I’d like to address a minor point though. Anonymous2 says: “I still haven’t heard the good Dr. Long explain why landlocking someone goes against his libertarian rights.”

    I think that’s simple. An absolute right in one’s property obviously includes the right to a “normal use” of that property. Now, if someone builds a house on an empty meadow, she only owns the land the house is standing on. But “using” her property (i.e. her house) in a “normal” way requires her to walk over parts of the meadow each day. So, by doing all that she not only obtains an absolute right to her house but also a right to access her house. Now if someone comes and landlocks her, he thus violates her right to access her house. Thus, while our original house owner cannot prevent anyone from building a house next to hers, since she only owns her house, she can prevent someone from building a weird circular house around hers, for example. By doing that, she wouldn’t violate a single libertarian principle.

    I think this reasoning can also be applied to the unlikely cases of sudden collective racism within a given area under which one person suffers. This would be, depending on the severity, either oppression or oppression and actual aggression.

  25. Matt Jenny October 18, 2006 at 10:22 am #

    I’m not sure if I just made a mistake, so please forgive me if this comment is going to appear twice.

    A very interesting discussion about subjects, some of which I haven’t made up my mind about at all.

    I’d like to address a minor point though. Anonymous2 says: “I still haven’t heard the good Dr. Long explain why landlocking someone goes against his libertarian rights.”

    I think that’s simple. An absolute right in one’s property obviously includes the right to a “normal use” of that property. Now, if someone builds a house on an empty meadow, she only owns the land the house is standing on. But “using” her property (i.e. her house) in a “normal” way requires her to walk over parts of the meadow each day. So, by doing all that she not only obtains an absolute right to her house but also a right to access her house. Now if someone comes and landlocks her, he thus violates her right to access her house. Thus, while our original house owner cannot prevent anyone from building a house next to hers, since she only owns her house, she can prevent someone from building a weird circular house around hers, for example. By doing that, she wouldn’t violate a single libertarian principle.

    I think this reasoning can also be applied to the unlikely cases of sudden collective racism within a given area under which one person suffers. This would be, depending on the severity, either oppression or oppression and actual aggression.

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