Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote

There is a key passage in Jan Narveson’s The Libertarian Idea that I did not quote in “Libertarianism and Morality.” In the version of Narveson’s book that is available online, the passage goes like this:

[I]f morality is an artificial construct, a rational convention, [which is a main point of Naveson’s book and my post] then those who have refused to make any deals acceptable to others are in the condition of rulelessness — in the Hobbesian “state of nature”. Hobbes himself characterizes this condition in an unfortunate way: that everyone has a “right of nature” to do whatever he or she thinks best, no matter what it is…. [T]hat is a useless, nonsensical employment of the term ‘right’ and should be dropped. Much less misleading to say that in the Hobbesian state of nature, nobody has any rights, period. And therefore nobody has the protections inherent in a moral system, where people accept rules which limit what they may do to others. These are rules which those others have reason to accept only if they likewise extend benefits to them. And whoever has not made the deal is someone with respect to whom no bets are on, no limitations authorized; and therefore people may do whatever they wish with them. Note that the ‘may’ here is normative. The person who signs no agreements is a person such that anyone else, willing to sign an agreement of mutual advantage, does have a moral right to deal with that person as he may. No one may blame him for doing so.

Whether one would deal harshly with a person who stands outside the agreed rules is another matter. For, as I note in “Libertarianism and Morality,” we humans are ruled not only by self-interest but also by empathy.

Be that as it may, the passage quoted above boils down to this:

Most people do have the desire he imputes to them of willingness to cooperate with others as a means to best advance one’s own interests. Those who do not can be overpowered. There are very few of them; and, as they will not agree with the rest of society, on what moral basis can they complain over the way others treat them? (from David Gordon’s review of The Libertarian Idea in Reason Papers, Spring 1989, pp. 169-177)

Whether there are “very few” of “them” is a questionable proposition in this day (or even 22 years ago, when Gordon’s review was published). An inordinately large share of the populace seems to have opted out of or simply rejected the “deal” that is represented in the Golden Rule. A key element of that “deal” is the mutual observance and enforcement of negative rights:

Such rights, as opposed to positive rights, do not involve claims against others; instead, they involve the right to be left alone by others. Negative rights include the right to conduct one’s affairs without being killed, maimed, or forced or tricked into doing something against one’s will; the right to own property, as against the right of others to abscond with property or claim it as their own; the right to work for a wage and not as a slave to an “owner” who claims the product of one’s labor; and the right to move and transact business freely within government’s sphere of sovereignty (which can include overseas movements and transactions, given a government strong enough to protect them).

[Negative] rights are limited to those that can be exercised without requiring something of others (e.g., transfers of income and property). The one necessary exception is the cost of providing a government to ensure the exercise of [negative] rights. (from “The Protection of Negative Rights,” in the section on “Minarchism” in “Parsing Political Philosophy“)

Now, as in 1989, the “deal” for too many Americans is to grab what one can at the expense of others. (The futility of this “new deal” is a tale that I have told in “The Interest-Group Paradox.”)

In any event, Narveson’s attitude toward those who stand outside the rules is parallel to mine. This is from an early post, about “The Origin and Essence of Rights“:

…Fundamentalist libertarianism [Narveson’s “intuitionism”] reduces liberty to a matter of faith. If libertarianism cannot stand on more than faith, what makes it any better than, say, socialism or the divine right of kings?

The virtue of libertarianism … is not that it must be taken on faith but that, in practice, it yields superior consequences. Superior consequences for whom, you may ask. And I will answer: for all but those who don’t wish to play by the rules of libertarianism; that is, for all but predators and parasites. (emphasis added)

Later, in “‘Natural Rights’ and Consquentialism,” I put it this way:

What if A and B agree, honorably, not to kill each other, whereas C “leaves his options open”? It then behooves A and B to reach a further agreement, which is that they will defend each other against C…. A and B therefore agree to live in liberty (the liberty of self-restraint and mutual defense), whereas C stands outside that agreement. He has forfeited the liberty of self-restraint and mutual self-defense. How so? A and B, knowing that C has “left his options open,” might honorably kill or imprison C when they have good reason to believe that C is planning to kill them or acquire the means to kill them. [a quotation from  “Anarchistic Balderdash“]

In sum, there can be no system makes everyone happy (unless you believe, foolishly, that everyone is of good will). Try to imagine, for example, a metric by which C’s happiness (if he succeeds in his predatory scheme) would offset A and B’s unhappiness (were C successful).

The problem now is that there are more than a “very few” Cs standing against the As and Bs. And it is the Cs who have seized the power of the state.

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