Archive | March 23, 2008

A Question for Critics of Ron Paul’s Critics, Part 3

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Now that Ron Paul’s candidacy is winding down, my debate with Walter Block over the analogy or disanalogy between Paul’s and Randy Barnett’s “deviations” no longer has much urgency (assuming it ever did), but let us proceed nonetheless.

Recap: last December I asked why Paul’s supporters downplay the importance of Paul’s deviations from libertarian purity (on, e.g., abortion and immigration – at least for those, like Walter, who agree with me that Paul’s positions on those issues are deviations) while on the other hand treating Barnett’s deviations (above all his support for the war) as a reason to deny his status as a libertarian at all. What justifies this disparity? (My own view is that both men’s deviations are sufficiently serious for me not to support either one for President [not that Barnett is running for President, but supposing he were], but that neither’s deviations disqualifies him from being considered a libertarian.)

Walter Block Walter replied, I counter-replied, and Walter has now counter-counter-replied. (There’s also lively discussion in the comments section – over 50 posts and counting.) I hereby counter-counter-counter-reply.

1. Walter’s first point is that Barnett’s deviations are more serious than Paul’s: “I see bombing innocent children and adults as a far more serious violation of liberty than aborting fetuses, or violating the rights of people to cross national borders.” This is a bit oddly worded; since Walter agrees with me on the permissibility of abortion, then of course we can agree that bombing innocent people is a more serious violation of liberty than aborting fetuses, since we don’t regard aborting fetuses as a violation of liberty at all. Presumably Walter meant that bombing innocent people is a more serious violation of liberty than preventing women from having abortions.

Now perhaps Walter is right that bombing innocent people is a worse violation of liberty than preventing women from having abortions. But that’s still consistent with thinking that preventing women from having abortions is an extremely serious violation of liberty; and I think any libertarian who holds the position that Walter and I hold on abortion is indeed committed to regarding a prohibition of abortion as an extremely serious violation of liberty, far more serious than, say, drug laws or economic regulations. For a ban on abortion then counts as unrightfully forcing women to allow their bodies to be used as incubators – the moral equivalent of mass rape and mass enslavement. Taking into account the pain and risk involved in childbirth, an abortion ban also counts as the moral equivalent of mass torture. Is mass rape/enslavement/torture a less serious violation of liberty than mass murder? Maybe so; but it certainly counts as being in the same moral ballpark.

Now it is true, of course, that Paul favours returning the abortion issue to the states rather than imposing a federal ban on abortion. That certainly makes his position less objectionable than it would otherwise be. (For my views on how to weigh the merits of decentralism against the merits of striking down local oppressive legislation, see the second half of my LRC article on Kelo.) Perhaps Walter will say that’s enough to make the difference between purgatorio for Paul and inferno for Barnett. Well, suppose we stipulate that that is so. Still, we may also note that Barnett is an anarchist while Paul is not. So Paul supports, while Barnett opposes, what Walter and I will agree is the most anti-liberty institution on earth, unreformable, unsalvageable, an inevitable source of more war and oppression so long as it exists. So why isn’t that enough to lower Paul’s score and/or raise Barnett’s?

2. Walter’s second point is that abortion and immigration are more complex issues than war, and deviation on complex issues counts less against one’s libertarian credentials than deviation on simple issues – just as getting 2 + 2 = 4 wrong counts more against one’s credentials as a mathematician than getting the Pythagorean theorem wrong, or getting the ex ante benefit of exchange wrong counts more against one’s credentials as an Austrian economist than getting the business cycle wrong.

But first of all, it’s not obvious to me that war is a less complex issue than abortion and immigration. Now maybe this is charitable bias on my part toward my own past self: I started my libertarian career as a Randian, so while I was never guilty of the anti-abortion and anti-immigration deviations, I was once hawkishly deviant on the issue of foreign policy – yet I don’t want to deny my past self the title of libertarian. But to put my position less self-servingly, I would say that, having once been a liberventionist myself, I can understand the position from the inside and see how a libertarian could sincerely adopt it. (Just combine an empirically mistaken view about whether a certain use of force is actually defensive with a morally mistaken view about the requirements for permissible violence against innocent shields, and voilà.)

Consider Barnett’s defense of his position here. Is it mistaken? Yes, I think so. Is it so obviously, grossly mistaken that no intelligent libertarian could sincerely adopt it? I can’t see that it is.

But second, even if I were to grant that the libertarian case against war is much simpler and more obvious than the libertarian case against restrictions on abortion and immigration, I can’t see how that would establish that deviation on the former does, while deviation on the latter does not, disqualify the proponent from counting as a libertarian. Greater complexity of an issue may make deviation on that issue more excusable, but I didn’t think we were arguing about who is more blameworthy for a given deviation. Whether Paul and/or Barnett reached their mistaken positions through honest error, culpable intellectual negligence, or some combination of the two is not my concern; I’m not interested in passing judgment on their souls.

The question of how complex an issue is seems to me quite different from the question of how serious a mistake about that issue is. Yes, Walter cites some cases in which the two do go together; but they need not always do so. Getting the fuel mixture wrong in the space shuttle, for example, is a more serious error than misspelling the shuttle’s name on the side, even though the latter error is less complex and so easier to avoid.

Likewise, the libertarian case against abortion laws is surely more complex than the libertarian case against taxation (since the former, unlike the latter, requires assessing the moral status of the fetus); hence it’s much easier to show that taxation is inconsistent with libertarian principles than to show that restrictions on abortion are. But it doesn’t seem to follow that libertarian deviations on abortion are less serious than libertarian deviations on taxation. On the contrary, once we grant that a ban on abortion is a rights-violation, then it must be seen as a worse rights-violation than taxation, since it invades the victim’s very body and not just her external property. And likewise for the pro-life side: if I regarded abortion itself as a rights-violation, I would again have to take it as a worse rights-violation than taxation, inasmuch as murder is worse than theft. So although abortion may be an easier issue for libertarians to get wrong than taxation is, it’s still surely worse to get abortion wrong – whichever side one thinks of as getting it wrong – than to get taxation wrong.

3. Walter thinks the case for regarding a deviation as within rather than beyond the pale of libertarianism depends on whether the deviation is endorsed by prominent libertarian authorities. The argument seems to be mainly epistemological: if so authoritative a libertarian as X holds a certain position, we should be more cautious about rejecting that position, and so accordingly more cautious about how serious a deviation we take it to be. (One might also interpret Walter as offering a paradigm-case argument: if theorist X is a paradigm case of a libertarian, then we cannot treat a deviation held by that theorist as reason to deny libertarian status to holders of that deviation. I’m not sure whether Walter intends this latter argument as well.) Given Walter’s additional premise that anti-immigrationists like Murray Rothbard, Hans Hoppe, and Stephan Kinsella are “more deserving of the title of eminent libertarian theorist” than liberventionists like John Hospers and Randy Barnett, it follows that libertarian deviation on immigration must be more serious than libertarian deviation on war. (Walter is apparently not sure – nor am I – what Hoppe’s and Kinsella’s views on abortion are; it’s an issue that argumentation ethics doesn’t clearly address. K-dog, if you’re reading this, pray enlighten us.)

I’m not convinced. First, with regard to the epistemological argument, suppose it’s true that we should be more cautious about rejecting positions that the “big guns” of libertarianism defend; I would probably put less weight on this point than Walter would, but let’s grant it arguendo. Still I don’t follow the inference from being more cautious in labeling a position as a deviation to attributing a lesser degree of seriousness to those positions we do label as deviations. The strength or certainty with which we’re prepared to hold a position seems like a different matter from the content of the positions we hold. It’s not as though we have to hold extreme views with extreme conviction and moderate views with moderate conviction; on the contrary, we might well have grounds to hold extreme views with moderate conviction and moderate views with extreme conviction. Hence even if thinker X’s greater eminence over thinker Y gives us reason for greater caution in labeling one of X’s positions a deviation than in labeling one of Y’s positions such, if we do decide that X and Y are both guilty of deviations, I can’t see that our reasons for differential caution translate into reasons for regarding X’s deviations as less serious than Y’s.

Randy Barnett As for Walter’s claim that Barnett does not count as “eminent,” this isn’t obvious to me. If Walter means “eminent” in the descriptive sense, meaning essentially “famous,” then I think Barnett probably counts as more eminent than, say, Hoppe and Kinsella, though probably less so than Rothbard. If Walter means “eminent” in the normative sense, meaning something like “important” or “deserving to be famous,” then Barnett surely belongs in the same tier of eminence as Hoppe and Kinsella. (I also don’t think the early, pro-immigration Rothbard can be less eminent than the later, anti-immigration Rothbard.) On behalf of Barnett’s claim to normative eminence, I would point to his excellent book The Structure of Liberty and articles on, for example, restitution, contract theory, and Spoonerite jurisprudence, as well as his marvelous two-part piece (Part 1; Part 2) in defense of anarchism. How, in light of these contributions, can we avoid acknowledging Barnett’s status as an eminent libertarian theorist? (I would make such a case for Hospers as well.)

As for the paradigm-case argument (if Walter means to offer one), Mises and Rand surely count as paradigmatic cases of libertarian theorists; yet Mises supported the Cold War, and Rand, though less hawkish than her current followers, held that any free or semi-free country has the right to invade any dictatorship, and that any innocent casualties in such an invasion are to be laid at the door of the invaded dictatorship, not the semi-free invaders. And then there’s Benjamin Tucker, a paradigmatic libertarian theorist for at least some of us, who defended U.S. entry into World War I. So deviation on war seems insufficient grounds for ejection from libertarian status.

In any case, I’m not sure how much should turn on whether a given position counts as within or beyond the pale of libertarianism per se; the main questions, as I see it, are a) is the position mistaken, and b) if so, is the mistake bad enough to warrant refusal to support a candidate? How bad a mistake is and how unlibertarian a mistake is are, after all, different questions. For example, someone who held that the entire human race should be exterminated, but favoured persuasive rather than coercive measures for achieving this, would be taking a worse position than someone who, say, endorsed copyrights, even though the former position has more claim than the latter to be consistent with the letter (though not the spirit) of libertarianism. Favouring voluntary extermination of the human race I would regard as a stronger reason not to support a candidate than favouring copyrights.

4. Walter closes by suggesting that he is “operating from a sort of agnostic point of view,” that of “a newcomer to libertarianism.” Okay, but in that case I have to ask: why is he doing that? After all, he’s not an agnostic; he appears to defend his positions quite forcefully, not tentatively or with one eye over his shoulder toward the eminent libertarian authorities (hey, I’ve heard him call Hans Hoppe a “pinko”! – this is not Mr. Quaking Deference); and he’s certainly less of a newcomer to libertarianism than I am.

5. Finally, I’m curious to know Walter’s opinion of Mary Ruwart’s candidacy. Ruwart holds (what Walter and I regard as) the right libertarian positions on foreign policy and abortion and immigration; plus she’s a generally radical libertarian, a proponent of Austrian business cycle theory, and an anarchist to boot. Does Walter agree with me that Ruwart’s candidacy is more deserving of libertarian support than Ron Paul’s?


[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

I note with interest that my old friend Mary Ruwart is entering the race for the LP nomination. Leaving aside the tangled question of whether electoral politics is an appropriate venue for libertarian activism (for the record, my view is that it shouldn’t be central but is not forbidden either), I have to point out that Mary is clearly a more acceptable candidate to those of a left-libertarian persuasion than is Ron Paul.

Mary Ruwart On such issues as abortion, immigration, punishment, plutocracy, constitutionalism, gay marriage, and patents and copyrights, her positions, while not always perfect, are at least broadly left-libertarian, while on the issues of foreign policy and the war on terror she’s actually more radically antiwar than Paul. Plus she’s even an anarchist, though she doesn’t trumpet it or use the term. Go Mary!

In not-especially-related news, I’m pleased to see that Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution tetralogy, the ultimate left-libertarian science-fiction epic, is being re-released in a two-volume edition.

Kamandi meets Ayn Rand?

Arna and KamandiOkay, despite the resemblance, that’s not really a young Ayn Rand arguing with the Last Boy on Earth. And I reckon the real Rand would frown on enslaving people to steal their genes.

Still, this Jack Kirby character’s name was Arna. Ya gotta wonder ….

March ’08 Miscellany

I’ve been out of town for a week and incommunibloggo; got back today (well, yesterday since it’s now after midnight).

1. I’m very sorry to learn that Ken Gregg has died. I never met him, but always enjoyed corresponding with him; in addition to his deep knowledge of and appreciation for the history of antistatist thought, he was unfailingly sensible and polite – traits not always encountered or encouraged in the world of blogs, listservs, and prickly libertarians. He will be missed.

2. I plan to reply to Walter’s piece when I get a chance. In the meantime, Michael Palmer asks in the comments section: “what has happened to It’s been replaced by stock spam. Could someone do something about that?” I have no idea what’s gone wrong, but I’ll look into it. Thanks for telling me! In the meantime, the page is still accessible at its “real” address:

3. A couple of LRC pieces worth noting: Max Raskin on the Boston Massacre and Bob Higgs on World War II.

4. Yahoo Movies grouses (conical hat tip to LRC) about the historical inaccuracy of the film 10,000 B.C., noting that “woolly mammoths were not, in fact, used to build pyramids” and in any case “there weren’t any pyramids in Egypt until 2,500 B.C or so.” Now I haven’t seen the film, but my impression, from what I’ve read and from the clips I’ve seen, was that the pyramid-builders in 10,000 B.C. aren’t supposed to be the Egyptians; they’re a pre-Egyptian civilisation.  So that particular complaint seems to miss the mark.

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