WorldSys: Austrian Home Study Course, Week 10

The World Systems Project is going to begin with a thorough examination of Austrian economics, starting with Robert P. Murphy’s outstanding “Austrian Economics Home Study Course“. The plan is to blog my answers to the weekly questions, with posts and book reviews tossed in as I go along. 

It should go without saying that the following contains ‘spoilers’, and if you intend on doing the home study course on your own you might not want to read further.

READINGS: Chapter 2 of Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty

1 What is the nonaggression axiom?

The nonaggression is the beginning of libertarian political and ethical philosophy. It states that no one may initiate the use of force against anyone else. You may defend yourself from me, but you may not attack me. From this flows everything else.

2 How does the axiom imply “civil liberties”?

Any activity which can be shown to accord with the nonaggression axiom under any sensible interpretation is defensible. Saying unpopular things, declining to participate in religious events, marrying a person of the same sex, watching pornography, and using drugs all become what are usually called ‘civil liberties.’ If you aren’t hurting anyone, you can do as you please.

3 What constitutes a crime to the libertarian?

Violence committed against someone’s person or property, period.

4 Are libertarians left- or right-wingers?

In many ways libertarians are orthogonal to the standard left/right axis. Libertarians don’t believe drug use should be a crime, which is a typical leftist view; they also believe that gun ownership should be a right, which is a typical rightist view. Libertarians don’t have a problem with gay marriage, a typical leftist view; and they believe strongly in small (or no) government and free markets, typical rightist views.

5 Can a libertarian support taxation?

The only way to be totally consistent with the nonaggression axiom is to oppose compulsory taxation in all its forms. In reality there are quite a lot of ‘minarchist’ libertarians who believe in a very limited and manageable rate of taxation to support only those services which are spectacularly difficult to provide on the market, like national defense.

6 What are the three different approaches to libertarian ethics?

Natural rights — which asserts that humans have moral rights by virtue of their being human.

Utilitarian — which defends various propositions on the grounds of its created ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’

Emotivist — which bases all endorsements purely on subjective, emotional considerations. In other words, the nonaggression principle is good because they feel like it’s good.

7 Describe [Murray] Rothbard’s objections to the utilitarian approach?

Rothbard has two primary objections to the utilitarian approach: first, the failure of classical liberalism (a phrase which is just another way of saying ‘libertarian’) was due in large part to an explicit or implicit embrace of utilitarianism. Even when one is otherwise a principled defender of freedom it is all too easy to make little utilitarian concessions to statism here and there, and before long the whole structure has moved considerably closer to tyranny.

Second, utilitarianism is opposed to radicalism of any sort. Rothbard makes the claim that there has never been a utilitarian radical; I don’t know if he is right or not, but I personally am unaware of anyone who fits the bill. If we want a principled, free society, we cannot build one on utilitarian grounds.

8 What is natural law theory?

Natural law theory is the preferred foundation for a defense of libertarianism. It begins by noting that all things have a nature specific to them. Water behaves in certain ways and not others. So do trees. So do cantaloupe and giraffes.

Human beings, possessing no automatic instincts like squirrels or salmon, must choose their ends and choose their means to survive. They must learn about the world and how to use it. Coercion of any sort is therefore not just vicious, but actively violates fundamental properties of human nature by interfering with the exercise of a person’s free choice.

9 What is the right to self-ownership, and how does Rothbard justify it?

Everyone owns their own body and has the right to use it. Each individual must use their own stomach to digest food, their own feet to walk, and their own mind to think, so who could possibly have a better claim to a person’s body than that person?

Consider the alternatives: if we reject the principle of self-ownership we are left with two possibilities. Either there is some caste of people who have a greater claim to your body than you do, or everyone on Earth has a partial claim to your body.

The first alternative confers humanity on the ruling caste and renders everyone else subhuman, while at the same time making it impossible to fulfill the economic requirements of life. If the elites can dictate where you work and what you consume you are a slave, plain and simple.

The second alternative simply isn’t workable. What would it mean for all seven billion people on Earth to own a part share in my body and its use? How are they to assert their claim? Am I to divide up my earnings and give a pitiful fraction to everyone? But then do I have the freedom to exercise on my own, because it isn’t as though the rest of humanity will get any benefit from my being in better shape!

Rothbard argues that this notion is actually worse than unworkable, it’s illogical. How could everyone have a right to own little bits of other people but not have a right to own themselves?

10 What is the homestead principle of ownership?

Having argued for the right to self-ownership we now need a theory of property. When does a person own a thing? The homestead principle says that ownership is conferred when several conditions obtain: either you mixed your labor with nature to make the thing or you traded with someone who did, and you didn’t steal the thing from anyone.

You own an apple tree when you planted it or bought it from the person who did. You own a hat when you made it or bought it from the person who did. If you stole either of these things you don’t own them, you are an aggressor who should be punished.

Here we face the same alternatives we did when grappling with the problem of self-ownership: either labor confers ownership, or ownership accrues to a special elite, or everyone on Earth enjoys partial ownership of everything.

The same analysis applies.

11 Don’t the needs of society sometimes outweigh the rights of individuals?

Rothbard contents that this question doesn’t make sense. Individuals need things, individuals make things, individuals have rights; societies are just collections of individuals. The concept of ‘societal needs’ is therefore moribund, and can only ever be useful insofar as it can be shown to derive from the needs of individuals within the society.

12 How does Rothbard explain the foundations of exchange and contract?

Exchange and contract grow directly out of the right to self-ownership and the homesteading principle discussed above. I own myself, I own my labor, I use my labor to make a hat, and I can trade the hat to someone in exchange for something I’d like more.

Contract is yet another extension, and consists in promising some future goods, services, or terms to another person as part of an exchange.

13 Don’t we need to balance property rights against human rights?

This question doesn’t make sense from the Libertarian perspective, as human rights are continuous with property rights. A typical human right, such as free speech, doesn’t have teeth if the state can seize a dissident’s property at any time and under any pretense.

Moreover, in the natural rights tradition property rights and human rights are derived through the same analysis and from the same source.

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