Flaws of Libertarianism, Part 1:NAP

Libertarians like to talk a lot about what they call the Non Aggression principle, which they define as prohibiting “… the initiation or threatening of violence against a person or legitimately owned property of another. “(wiki) Like most libertarian principles, this fails to account for the reality of how liberty and freedom are actually encroached upon. Taken as it stands, it will inevitably serve to defend and entrench privilege, while denying the oppressed any ‘legitimate’ recourse. Economic and social coercion can be tools of tyranny as great as any thuggish secret police, unless they are actively combated. Under a libertarian regime, however, these types of coercion are enshrined into law, and defended by the full (physical) force of the state and society at large (since private violence is acceptable under the NAP in case of threats to legally owned property).

Economic coercion takes many forms, but one of the most blatant is the company town, which I will use as a salutary example. Keep in mind that the company town is not a thought experiment; it is a phenomenon which exists today where not prohibited by force of law. In the company town, the company owns every scrap of land within the town. The town is centered on a factory or extractive operation, which is the town’s primary source of employment. Other potential employment is found in support occupations: a general store, a bar, sometimes a brothel depending on local mores, possibly a school and a clinic. These are also run by the company. Housing is provided as an employment benefit, or is rented to workers at exorbitant rates. The company store’s prices are likewise high, and wages at the factory are low, ensuring that money never lasts until the next pay check and the workers are forced to buy necessities on credit. In this situation, the workers cannot fight the company in any respect: anyone who tries to buck the system will be fired, and their spouse, if any, as well. They will then be evicted, either because they and their families are no longer entitled to employment benefits. And/or are in debt of the rent. They have no money to leave town, because they’re in debt to the company store. Anyone who offers them shelter or assistance is subject to the same treatment. This means that, practically speaking, the company threatens their lives if they disobey; they will be thrown out to freeze or starve, and there is no recourse for them. Libertarians insist that this is different from a gun to the head, but are unable to explain how, except that they declare it so.
A more diffuse but equally real example of economic aggression is redlining. Once again, this is a real practice, and one which continues to a degree today. Redlining consists of financial institutions simply refusing services to certain areas, which are largely inhabited by black people.
Banks drew red lines on city maps around the black neighborhoods, and deny mortgages, home improvement loans, and business loans to people who lived there. Insurance companies likewise would not insure homes or businesses owned by people within those boundaries. Denied even the possibility of acquiring capital, the inhabitants of those neighborhoods are at the mercy of rent-seeking landlords and whatever low wage employment may be offered to them (see social coercion, below). They have no opportunity to start a business, own a home, or even acquire significant savings, since they are forced into low wage employment, and the price of rent and groceries is elevated by the need for an absentee owner to gouge out a share. Such money as comes into the neighborhood rapidly flees again, into the pockets of the absentee owners, and the residents are trapped in a permanent cycle of poverty.

Social coercion also takes many forms, from which I will select sexism, simply because I happen to have seen a great deal of discussion of it lately and it’s fresh in my mind. In America today (and also other places, to a greater or lesser extent; I use the U.S. due to personal familiarity), to be a woman means to be denied choices in many ways. There are certain fields that are designated as ‘women’s fields’ in society, while other professions are assumed to be ‘men’s professions.’ When a woman seeks to enter any field that is not designated as appropriate, she will face a large number of obstacles, which will in many case prove insurmountable. To begin with, female students in ‘inappropriate;’ fields are routinely excluded from class discussions by professors, graded more harshly than male counterparts, and often subject to continued ridicule from professors and classmates alike. As a brief digression, before anyone starts up with the ‘toughen up, words will never hurt me’ bullshit, just stop right there. Harassment and ridicule do take a psychological toll, and ongoing psychological stress can and does create medical problems of both psychiatric and non psychiatric types (e.g. ulcers). Suffering from that type of stress also degrades actual performance relative to those who are not under such stresses. Those who persevere will find that they are hired less often, let go sooner, promoted more rarely and paid less than men with the same qualifications. They will also typically continue to suffer harassment, often of a sexual nature, and ongoing ridicule in the course of doing their jobs. They will be assigned to demeaning and subservient tasks and put in positions which ignore their training and credentials. Once again, this constitutes coercion of women into certain areas of life, denying them the free agency men take as their due.

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10 thoughts on “Flaws of Libertarianism, Part 1:NAP

  1. I would agree that aggressive coercion is taking place in the examples you cited. The reason I would think so is because people’s alternatives, often at the behest of business or other private interests, have been squashed by government force and from what libertarians like Kevin Carson have come to describe as “the subsidy of history.”

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  2. The article you cite is interesting, and I will produce a more detailed critique of it later. The author is certainly much more grounded in reality than most libertarian theorists, and I agree entirely with substantial parts of it. Based on your having posted this article I am assuming that you subscribe to some variation of a labor theory of value, and that furthermore you are in general supportive of unions, worker’s cooperatives, and the like? Please correct me if I am wrong in these assumptions, as I do not care to mischaracterize the positions of others. If these things are true, then I ask you to acknowlege that a large proportion of libertarians at present advocate for increased rights being held by large corporations relative to workers, and that the position advocated in the article you cited conflicts with the NAP as stated above, which is a quotation from the wikipedia article on the subject, and the phrasing I have most often seen. Specifically, the formulation usually used specifies legal ownership of property. By that standard, the factory owners, company towns, and supporters of the enclosure laws are in the right: They have legal title to the property and can do what they like.

    One particular thing from the article that I feel I must point out, though before I get to my more detailed critique:

    A similar process occurred in the colonization of settler societies like America and Australia, by which the colonial powers and their landed elites attempted to replicate feudal patterns of property ownership. In such colonies, the state preempted ownership of vacant land and restricted working people’s access to it

    This land was not vacant, but previously inhabited and under use. The lush forests of New England, teeming with game were the product of deliberate cultivation and effort by the local people, through a careful schedule of setting fires, selective tree clearing, and removal of unwanted plants. When Lewis and Clark first saw Western Idaho, the hills were covered in edible blue camas lilies with such density that it looked as though the area was flooded; this was not an accident, but by design of the natives, who had been culitvating the camas lilies of such an effect for millenia. Never think that that land was not expropriated by force and violence.

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  3. Most of the article, as I said, I agree with and is congruent with the facts reality as best I can ascertain. Besides what was mentioned above, there are three (technically four, but one of them is pretty quick).

    Capitalism—that is, the existing historical system as it actually developed—has had very little to do with free markets and a great deal to do with robbery and coercion.

    No true bloody scotsman. What is a free market, in the ‘wild’ if not the 19th century?

    As Ludwig von Mises pointed out in Socialism, the normal functioning of the market never results in a state of affairs in which most of the land of a country is “owned”

    This is patent nonsense. In an unregulated market, ownership of a large amount of commodity will tend to aggregate more commodities unless there is a counteracting force. Usually this is taxation, although smaller and less complex societies can get by with socially enforced potlach and gifting ceremonies. Also, such societies tend to have many classes of non-commodity property, which could be owned but not traded under normal circumstances. In the case of this article, this proposition is also irrelevant; if property is only held by those who are using it, then real estate is not a trade-able commodity and can’t be accumulated per se.

    The current “tenants,” or peasants, should be the absolute owners of their property

    The idea of absolute property rights as applied to real estate is problematic for a number of reasons. There is an absolutely limited supply of it, and it is far from fungible: not all land is equal for all purposes, and some purposes prohibit the use of others. Furthermore, the present tenants of the land are not the final tenants thereof, and they can easily do things which will prohibit the use of the land to future tenants, which is problematic due to problem number one. Private owners can and do do things in the name of short term profit for themselves that make the land unusable for future tenants (a classic example being the Dust Bowl, from which the area still hasn’t recovered ). Additionally, the use of land can have knock on effects on neighbors, most notably pollution of the air, water, and soil. Since a particular case of disease or fall of acid rain can’t be traced to a particular factory’s emissions, for example, the classic libertarian remedy of lawsuits is untenable for even more reasons then usual . Some type of systemic i.e. government intervention is required.

    …void state titles to property and treat it as unowned, subject to immediate homesteading by those actually mixing their labor with it.

    Once again, this is not necessarily a good idea when the idea of ecosystem services is taken into account. Forests, for example, filter groundwater and help keep rivers clean, increase rainfall in local climate regions, anchor soil, filter CO2 and generate O2, maintains fisheries, and provides other benefits. The list goes on.

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    1. Specifically, the formulation usually used specifies legal ownership of property.

      I don’t know of any libertarian thinkers who are legal positivists, so what the government deems legal is irrelevant with regard to the NAP.

      This land was not vacant

      He didn’t say all the land was vacant.

      What is a free market, in the ‘wild’ if not the 19th century?

      Carson is a free-market anticapitalist, BTW, so he’s not defending capitalism.

      19th century capitalism is pretty well known for the robber barons who used government intervention to lock out competitors.

      In an unregulated market, ownership of a large amount of commodity will tend to aggregate more commodities unless there is a counteracting force.

      Diseconomices of scale, like transportation, are such a force. That is why big companies like using the government to subsidies their diseconomices of scale.

      The idea of absolute property rights as applied to real estate is problematic for a number of reasons.

      Do you object to absolute property ownership? Or rather, is it that you’d prefer that power rest with the government instead?

      Since a particular case of disease or fall of acid rain can’t be traced to a particular factory’s emissions, for example, the classic libertarian remedy of lawsuits is untenable for even more reasons then usual .

      In the United States, the EPA’s response is to file lawsuits too.

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      1. I don’t know of any libertarian thinkers who are legal positivists, so what the government deems legal is irrelevant with regard to the NAP.

        Bluntly, without some type of legal framework, property rights stem from the barrel of a gun, or the point of a spear depending on technology. The mere fact of living on a piece of property and doing something useful with it is no defence against your local warlord. It is far better to have, in Garret Hardin’s phrasing “Mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.” Representative democratic government is the best available compromise between scale of needed action and maximum say for all concerned parties. Note that the degree to which this is true varies widely according to the particular structure of the representation in question; the U.S. system is far from the best functioning example.

        He didn’t say all the land was vacant.

        The land which was claimed in Australia and the Americas was not vacant; I don’t know how to be more clear about this. Some vacancies were created later on by plagues, I suppose, but for the most part the land to which he specifically refers was conquered by force.

        19th century capitalism is pretty well known for the robber barons who used government intervention to lock out competitors.

        Yes, yes, the evil government. You know what companies do when the government isn’t effectual enough for them to corrupt to get their brute force? They hire mercenaries. That was actually their usual first recourse in the U.S. too. You’ve heard of the Pinkertons?

        Diseconomices of scale, like transportation, are such a force. That is why big companies like using the government to subsidies their diseconomices of scale.

        Define what you meean by subsidies in this context. If you are referring, as many libertarians do, to the existence of e.g. non-toll roads, then you are mistaken as to the cost-benefit analysis thereof. The benefits of a robust transportation infrastructure are many and well established, including productivity and employment increases.

        Do you object to absolute property ownership? Or rather, is it that you’d prefer that power rest with the government instead?

        “Mutual coercion mutually agreed upon.” There has to be a process for determining the disposition of things like arable land, on which everyone depends for their survival, so as to ensure that they continue to be available.

        In the United States, the EPA’s response is to file lawsuits too.

        I never said that the U.S. was the best example of dealing with this type of problem effectively, mostly because of all the people whining about evil evil regulations. That said, the cap and trade program that was implemented for SO2 in 1989 was quite successful in reducing acid rain; this would not have occured without government intervention. There are examples of more efficacious regulation regimes from other places, however, involving hard limits on emissions.

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      2. Bluntly, without some type of legal framework, property rights stem from the barrel of a gun, or the point of a spear depending on technology.

        That is true of all rights. But that does not mean a decree simply because it was made by a government has any merit.

        but for the most part the land to which he specifically refers was conquered by force.

        OK, but once it was conquered, was it not held vacant? That is what he is talking about.

        Yes, yes, the evil government. You know what companies do when the government isn’t effectual enough for them to corrupt to get their brute force? They hire mercenaries.

        Which is why it’s usually just cheaper just to have the government do it and let taxpayers pay the bill.

        Define what you meean by subsidies in this context. The benefits of a robust transportation infrastructure are many and well established, including productivity and employment increases.

        Maybe so. But that does not negate the fact that companies with large production distributions appear more profitable (in comparison to more local and smaller-scale producers) by externalizing their operating costs and other inherent inefficiencies of centralized, hierarchical production.

        There has to be a process for determining the disposition of things like arable land, on which everyone depends for their survival, so as to ensure that they continue to be available.

        Agreed. I just want the process to be done in the most decentralized manner possible. After all, those with the most access and tightest connections are going to organize whatever they can in their favor.

        That said, the cap and trade program that was implemented for SO2 in 1989 was quite successful in reducing acid rain; this would not have occured without government intervention.

        To define my term, I understand an intervention to have taken place when the government prevents people from using their property in such a way as they had a right to use it. Not all government actions are interventions.

        It depends how its set up, but in theory an exchange wouldn’t necessarily be a form of government intervention. If the environment can withstand a certain amount of waste so that other people’s use of their property is not affected, it could be a proper role of government to define the rights to those property easements. In practice, I’m less optimistic it would happen that way.

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  4. That is true of all rights. But that does not mean a decree simply because it was made by a government has any merit.

    I’m not certain I see your point here. My criticisms of the NAP apply regardless of the definition of property in use.

    OK, but once it was conquered, was it not held vacant? That is what he is talking about.

    Some of it was held vacant, but not in significant amoounts until it weas realized that there might be some value to keeping some unoccupied land around, no. Prior to that, it was’transferred to private ownership’ as fast as possible, as the article you posted recommends all government land should be.

    Which is why it’s usually just cheaper just to have the government do it and let taxpayers pay the bill.

    Untrue and silly. The costs of suborning reasonably non-corrupt governments are similar to or higher than the cost of paying thugs directly. It’s simply that in better organized countries, mercenary outfits aren’t allowed to exist. In really well run governments, corruption is also virtually eliminated, and the government can’t be hired as thugs either. The U.S. is getting to that latter point, but massive opposition to a strong central government has made it very difficult. City cops are easier to suborn than state governments, which are in turn easier to suborn than the Federal government. Note that a virtually all of the government sponsored violence against both the labor movement and the civil rights mobement came from State governments, and was ended by Federal intervention. I’m not claiming the Feds are saints; they could and should have intervened much earlier and more effectively, but that is something that we can work on. There are many examples of governments which have doone much better on tat front, and there’s no reason in principle that the U.S. can’t as well, but we need to knock it off with the ‘State’s Rights’ bullshit every 30 seconds.

    Maybe so. But that does not negate the fact that companies with large production distributions appear more profitable (in comparison to more local and smaller-scale producers) by externalizing their operating costs and other inherent inefficiencies of centralized, hierarchical production.

    I prefer to have a more proseperous society, personally. Especially since a progressive tax regime can prevent excessive concentration of wealth more effectively without depriving everyone of the benefits of good infrastructure. Excessive in this case is defined as ‘detrimental to the overall functioning of the economy.’

    Agreed. I just want the process to be done in the most decentralized manner possible. After all, those with the most access and tightest connections are going to organize whatever they can in their favor.

    Granted. However, each individual making the sole decision about whatever patches of land they’ve claimed is not a feasible level of decentralization. Among many factors, large scale effects can be created by a lot of small actions. Look at the Dust Bowl, each farmer made a decision that on its own wouldn’t have been so bad, but when enough people did it, catastrophe ensued.

    To define my term, I understand an intervention to have taken place when the government prevents people from using their property in such a way as they had a right to use it. Not all government actions are interventions.

    An intervention is when the government intervenes and causes a change in someone’s actions. That’s what the term means. All government action involves intervening in something. That’s the purpose of government.

    It depends how its set up, but in theory an exchange wouldn’t necessarily be a form of government intervention.

    In theory, random Brownian motion could sculpt the smoke from a campfire into a perfect replica of Michaelangelo’s David, but I’m not holding my breath. In practice, businesses didn’t do that for SO2, and they didn’t do that for the Cuyahoga River, and they’re not doing that for CO2. In the first two cases, instead of waiting and hoping, we damn well made them change their tack, and it worked. I don’t care at all about what could potentially happen, I care about what is likely to happen, and how we can go about making desirable outcomes more likely.

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