[Taken from here.]
Deep in the forest, thousands of miles from civilization, there is an isolated village. It has not seen contact with any other humans for a long time. It is, however, a pleasant and flourishing community, which strongly values freedom and entrepreneurship. There is, however, one tiny quirk. In this village, there is a ritual. Every year, a boy who reaches 18 is cannibalized. It brings the rains, or something. But despite its taste for cannibalism, this village wishes to live in accordance with libertarian principles. Thus, they will only cannibalize the boy if he consents. In order to encourage this to happen, they will put tremendous social pressure on the boy. All through his youth, they will tell him they believe the future of the village depends on his consenting. His parents tell him that he would bring great shame on the household if he refused, which is true. The choice nevertheless rests with the boy, and whatever he chooses will be respected. The parents and villagers attempt to persuade him, but never lie to him, and make clear that they would never force his choice. However: if the boy refuses to be cannibalized, the village has a backup plan. The boy will be blacklisted. No shopkeeper will sell him food, no hotel will give him a room, no hospital will treat him, no employer will hire him. After all, under libertarian principles, nobody can be told how to use their property. The boy’s parents, ashamed of him, will turn him out of the house with no money. He may leave the village, but it is certain death, for thousands of miles of desolate wolf-infested wilderness stand between him and other humans and he has no food. (The wilderness is also privately-owned, and he cannot pay the admission fee.) He is shunned and despised, left to wander the streets in a futile search for shelter and sustenance. However, no force is exercised against him. He is never touched or arrested. He is treated as nonexistent, as the villagers await his demise. So the boy starves to death. The villagers then cannibalize his emaciated corpse, reasoning that they cannot be compelled to give him a dignified burial (plus he died on private property, collapsing in a flowerbed).
Is eating the boy’s corpse after he dies the only potential violation of libertarian principles in the village? Is every single other aspect of this completely permissible?
The setting sun shone its last few rays on Independence Hall. The delegates were tired, but a thrill of excitement filled the air. The wrangling and deal-making was almost done; nothing remained but a few technicalities.
As the last sunbeam went below the horizon, something stirred in the middle of the chamber. It grew into a wind, then a whirlwind, and then standing among the assembled Founding Fathers was a strange man dressed all in silver, wearing a pair of gold goggles.
“You’ve got to stop!” he shouted. “It’s all lies!”
George Washington had stayed calm through cavalry charges, artillery fire, and the assembled might of the United Kingdom. He flinched only a little here. “Who are you, sir? Where have you come from?
The traveler barely heard. “Listen! You think ‘democracy’ can solve all your problems. But – imagine there’s a village full of cannibals. They have a tradition of picking a child, and killing and eating him when he’s eighteen years old. Well, even if that village is a democracy, then 51% of the population can just vote to kill and eat him! Do you want a child to be killed and eaten? Because that’s what your ‘democracy’ inevitably leads to! Checkmate, liberals!”
The delegates were only less dazed by the man’s speech than by his sudden appearance. Finally, General Washington asked whether anyone wanted the floor. After a scramble of shouts and raised hands, the chair recognized James Madison, delegate from Virginia.
“Thank you,” said James Madison. “Our Traveler may not know this, but I am preparing a Bill of Rights to be added on to the end of this Constitution, severely limiting the powers which the government may exercise. I’m planning one on cruel and unusual punishment, which sounds like it ought to cover killing and eating someone, and there will also be various restrictions on seizure of persons. The Traveler is already wrong that we operate entirely on the basis of 51% of the populace – rather, there will be representatives, senators, and Supreme Court Justices. But even if all these people should agree to kill and eat someone, I am confident that the natural rights included in my bill will restrict such practices.”
“AHA!” said the Traveler. “You’ve fallen for my trap! Because even if the government is banned from assisting in killing and eating someone, it could still happen. Imagine a system where, if the victim refused to be killed and eaten, then everyone in the village refused to house him, or feed him, so that he starved to death. Then he’d be dead anyway, and your precious Bill of Rights wouldn’t be able to do anything about it!”
“Couldn’t the victim just move to a different village?” interjected John Jay.
“The village is in the middle of a giant forest stretching five thousands miles, teeming with dire wolves,” snarled the Traveler, annoyed at such a stupid objection.
“Couldn’t the victim just build his own house, and farm his own food?” asked John Adams.
“The dire wolves would tear up the house, and trample all over the farm!” said the traveler. “You’re splitting hairs here! Why won’t anyone answer my question in the spirit it was intended?!”
There were more shouts and another frenzy for attention. General Washington banged his gavel. “The chair recognizes Alexander Hamilton.”
“Yo,” said Hamilton. “The institutions of our Constitution, give a clear solution to this persecution. The Revolution…”
“The chair unrecognizes Representative Hamilton, and offers the floor to anyone who does not speak in rap.”
“Thank you,” said Benjamin Franklin. “My good Mysterious Traveler, perhaps you labor under the misapprehension that political philosophies are also moral philosophies, and so fail irredeemably if they ever recommend an immoral course of action. I do not believe democracy is always right. But I believe it is a wise way to govern. All that systems of government can do is take nations – with all of their conflicts, ideas, prejudices, and values – as input, and then magnify some impulses and suppress others. Start with a country where every single person is entirely set on doing as much evil as possible, and democracy alone cannot save it; they will simply vote to do as much evil as possible. But start with a country in which there are many different classes, agendas, and visions, and I believe that a democratic system is more likely to magnify those impulses that help the common people, and suppress those impulses that lead to tyranny, than any other system yet devised.”
“So you’re saying,” said the traveler, “that you don’t care that your precious democracy and even your so-called Bill of Rights aren’t good enough to save the life of a child in – ”
“You listen here,” said Benjamin Franklin. “I care plenty. In a village that didn’t have any form of government, as soon as anybody big and strong enough wants to eat you, they can form a mob and drag you away. In a village that operates as a direct democracy, it’s harder. You need 51% of the population to want to eat you before you end up as dinner. And in a village that subscribes to Mr. Madison’s notion of natural rights, it’s harder still. You have to have every single person in the village agree not to feed the victim, without a single kindly old lady leaving food out on her porch at night when it’s too dark out for anyone to see. We have gone from tyranny – a system where, as long as even one person wishes you ill, you perish – all the way to a system where as long as there is a single person who does not wish you ill, you endure. That seems to me to be the best we can do in this world.”
Suddenly the Traveler seemed to warp, or crackle, like a signal from far away was being disrupted. “I must go!” he said. “I’m being recalled to my home time!” he shouted. “Where I will tell people that they should form a government based on socialism, and that it will be great, and nothing can possibly go wrong!”
“Stop!” said Jay. “You must tell us about this ‘socialism’ of yours!”
“Say, before you’re lost to me, at very high velocity, what is this new philosophy, that can prevent atrocity?” begged Hamilton.
But it was Washington, ever the man of action, who jumped up from the chair and grabbed the Traveler by his silver arm, holding him against the winds of Time. “This ‘socialism’ of yours – ” asked Washington. “It can ensure that – even in a barbaric society where literally one hundred percent of the people are wholeheartedly dedicated to do so – nobody ever eats their fellow citizens?”
“Yes!” said the traveler. “Why, in true socialist countries, nobody ever eats anything at all!”
Then he broke free of Washington’s grasp and disappeared forever, just as the first rays of the moon cast their white light on Philadelphia.
Is there a meaningful difference between coercion by the state and coercion by private entities?
The door caved in loudly and suddenly, like a thunderclap. My Golden Retriever ran up, tail wagging, to investigate. Another loud noise, and my dog lay dead, bleeding on the floor in front of me.
“PUT YOUR HANDS UP!” said a man in black body armor and a black helmet. There were five of them, all with guns. My five-year-old son started to cry. “HANDS UP!” he shouted, “I’M NOT GOING TO TELL YOU AGAIN!”
I put my hands up. My son, who was screaming, got the presence of mind to put his hands up also, though not before one of the armored men had put a gun to his head.
“What’s wrong?!” I asked. “Why are you doing this to us?”
One of the men put a gun to my head. “Admit it! You’re growing marijuana here!”
“I’m not!” I insisted.
“Is this 2051 Willow Street?”
“No, this is 2052 Willow Street. 2051 Willow Street is on the other side!”
“Oh. Well, sorry.”
“Sorry? That’s all you have to say? You killed my dog! You terrorized my five-year-old son!”
“Yeah, sorry. We’re McDonalds employees, and corporate headquarters must have given us bad directions.”
“You’re…McDonalds employees? Why are McDonalds employees doing no-knock raids in body armor looking for marijuana?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“Then why are you even here? You just think it’s okay to randomly go around, kill people’s pets, terrorize their families, when you don’t know why you’re doing it? How can you justify such a thing?”
“I heard there were a bunch of people who were okay with private coercion, and only objected to coercion when it was applied by the State.”
“What? Where did you hear that?”
“I don’t know. Some socialist magazine, I think.”
Can you construct a theory of property rights that does not suffer from internal incoherence or depend on specious natural law assumptions?
Professor Kryzenski sat down in her desk and booted up her computer. It was another quiet morning here at the Harvard Philosophy Department. She had won her position as Department Chair by discovering a complete theory of morality grounded in first principles with no internal incoherence or any specious assumptions, able to determine everything from the optimal number of minutes to spend speaking to your mother each week to how close you could come to beggars before you were obligated to give them money.
She had just finished checking her emails – mostly invitations to speak at various conferences and events – when something started to stir in the center of her office. It turned into a wind, then a whirlwind, and finally, a strange-looking man, dressed in silver with gold goggles.
“Professor!” said the Traveler. “Professor Kryzenski! Terrible news!”
The Professor, whose mind had plumbed the depths of ontology and ascended the heights of metaphysics, was a hard woman to perturb. “Yes?” she asked the man. “What is it?”
“Suppose there’s an evildoer who punishes all evildoers who do not punish themselves. Does the evildoer punish himself, or not?”
Professor Kryzenski realized the implications right away. “My God. It’s a paradox! My complete theory of morality grounded in first principles with no internal incoherence or specious assumptions, able to determine everything from the right amount to tip your waiter to the exact words you need to speak before a sexual act for it to qualify as consensual – lies in ruins!”
“And that means…” began the Traveler.
“That’s right,” said Professor Kryzenski. She and the Traveler spoke in unison: “Nothing is true and everything is permissible.”
“Come,” she said. “I’ve prepared for this day.” She took a key out of a potted plant on the windowsill, then used it to open a locked cupboard in her desk. Inside were two hatchets. She handed one to the Traveler.
“Where are we going?” he asked.
“To the daycare down the road, to hack the limbs off the babies,” she said. “Obviously.” The Traveler nodded his approval, and off they went, eyes red with bloodlust.
The Infinitely Rich Man is not infinitely rich. He is just very, very rich. Nobody knows quite how rich. One day, you happened to meet the Infinitely Rich Man in a bar. At first he was friendly, but soon you found yourselves in an argument about horses. You were for them, and he was against them. Or perhaps you were against them, and he was for them. You don’t actually remember how it went. As you parted ways, you expected never to see the Infinitely Rich Man again.
Little do you know: the Infinitely Rich Man now despises you. His sole desire on earth is to see you unhappy. This should hardly trouble you, though. After all, you have a good job at a castanet factory. You own your own home, which has a picturesque lake view. You have a wife, whom you love and who loves you. You also have a prized possession, your 1972 Pontiac Lemans. You don’t have much spare cash, but this never bothers you because of your stable job. The Infinitely Rich Man is also a strict Libertarian. He believes it is illegitimate for anyone to initiate force against another. And because you are fortunate enough to live in a Libertarian world, you are free to enjoy those things you treasure most in the world without being bothered by the state or the Infinitely Rich Man. The Infinitely Rich Man is not discouraged, however. He still believes he can ruin you. He will be a Count of Monte Cristo, but an extremely law-abiding one.
The first thing the Infinitely Rich Man does is buy the castanet factory where you work. He immediately fires you. He also makes sure that if any other employers inquire about you, the castanet factory will refuse to serve as a reference. Not that this matters, for he intends to bribe any other castanet company who hires you into firing you. (There are four castanet companies.) You therefore find yourself unemployed. Fortunately, you have a skill. You know how to make castanets! (Castanets are very popular.) So you scrape together what money you have, and you open a little drive-thru castanet stand out on Route 9. But the Infinitely Rich Man has a plan. He opens a stand next to yours. At his stand, castanets are free. He gives them away by the truckload. He sets the whole world clacking. You cannot compete. You are ruined.
At least you still have your wife, your friends, your lakeview home, your 1972 Pontiac Lemans. But the Infinitely Rich Man has a plan. First, he buys the lake. He fills it with concrete. No more lake view, and your property value diminishes by $100,000. Then, he buys every house around yours, flattens it, and turns it into a landfill. The smell doesn’t reach your home, but it turns the neighborhood unsightly and desolate. Your house becomes worthless. The Infinitely Rich Man buys the heating company and refuses to provide gas to your home at any price. (You try to talk other gas companies into competing, but they refuse; laying a new main for a single home would be absurd, they say.) But you have a wife! And friends! And you get to drive a 1972 Pontiac Lemans! The Infinitely Rich Man offers a bribe. Any of your friends who refuse to speak with you ever again will receive a salary of one million dollars per year. At first, many decline to take the bribe. But sooner or later, most of them have one or another sticky financial situation, and they give in. Goodbye, vast majority of your friends! At least your wife loves you.
But one day, she becomes ill. She finds out that she will die, unless she goes on a treatment regimen for the rest of her life. The regimen costs $100,000 a month. The Infinitely Rich man pops up, and offers to pay. The one condition is that she divorce you, cut contact, and never speak with you again. As soon as she breaks the agreement, he will cease to pay for the treatment. You love your wife, but you do not want her to die. You both agree that it is better that she should accept. At least you can drive your 1972 Pontiac Lemans. Oh, but wait. The Infinitely Rich Man invests heavily in electric energy. Slowly, he makes gasoline-powered transit obsolete. He buys the oil companies, burns the gasoline, and converts every gas pump to a charging station. You can only drive your Lemans short distances, using some of the last gallons of available petrol, which you ordered from the internet. (That is, if the Infinitely Rich Man didn’t outbid you!) They don’t make the Pontiac Lemans anymore. Parts therefore exist only in small quantities. The Infinitely Rich Man buys up all existing Lemans parts. The moment it breaks, you are out of luck. As you sit alone, broke, and starving in the garage of your unheated home, caressing your disabled Lemans, thinking about your long-gone wife, your lake view, and your job, you are thankful that you live in a world of freedom, where nobody can encroach upon the liberty of another.
Questions for Libertarians: Has the non-aggression principle been violated? Should the Infinitely Rich Man suffer any civil or criminal penalties for his actions?
“That,” said Mr. Thaddeus Nett-Worth III, Esq., “is the most benightedly offensive statement I have ever heard.”
“All I said,” I said, “was that horses were basically elongated cows.”
“They are a noble animal, an unparalleled paragon of mammalian perfection!”
“Right,” I said. “Like cows are. Only more elongated.”
“Dastard!” said Mr. Nett-Worth, pounding the table so hard his top hat and monocle almost fell off. “You’ve messed with the wrong captain of industry, believe you me. Let me tell you what I am going to do. You own a castanet factory? I am going to undercut you, undercut you bad. I will destroy your business. Then, I shall buy the lake by your home and fill it up with concrete. I will buy your heating company and refuse to pay you gas. I will bribe your friends never to speak to you again. I will wait until your wife develops a deadly disease, then offer to treat her if only she divorces you. I can do all of it, because we are in a perfectly libertarian society with no laws besides the non-aggression principle, where lawmakers have failed to pass commonsense legislation like ‘making it illegal to hurt someone by legal means’. And then – alone, friendless, shivering in the cold in your hopelessly ugly house – then you will rue the day you ever compared horses to – ” (he almost spits) ” – elongated cows.”
“But, I mean, think about it. Their faces are a little bit longer. Their bodies are a little bit longer. They’re pretty much just elongated cows. I’m sorry this is so hard for you.”
“What? You’re not backing down? You should be at my feet, begging me for forgiveness! Don’t you know all the things I can use my wealth to do to you in our perfectly libertarian society?”
“Yeah, well, about that. I know this guy named David Friedman, whose hobby is designing weird insurance systems for anarcho-capitalist utopias based on, like, the laws of medieval Iceland or something. Anyway, he sells ‘rich person gets a weird grudge against you’ insurance. I have loads of it. However much you try to bribe my friends not to talk to me, his company will pay more to bribe them to ignore you. However much you try to pay for my gas company, his company will pay more to keep my heat on. And if you try to offer my wife free health care to leave me, his company will offer her better health care to stay.”
“What? How did you even know to buy such an insurance?”
“Well, part of it was just a ‘why not?’ sort of thing. The odds of the situation ever happening are so astronomically low that the insurance was incredibly cheap – a few cents per year. Also, the mere existence of the insurance prevents rich people from starting bizarre revenge schemes against the people in it, so they can afford to assume they will rarely have to pay out. I guess the price was so low that it was a no-brainer.”
“But what about transaction costs? Why would you even think to look into such a product?”
“Well, this is going to sound weird, but – I was reading a history book a few months ago, and – you remember that time a time traveler appeared in the middle of the Constitutional Convention, making some kind of point about how democracy wouldn’t work in a village of evil cannibals? Don’t you think that was pretty weird?”
“I had thought it was just one of the many colorful, larger-than-life stories from the Revolution. Like how George Washington was unimpeachably honest, or Benjamin Franklin always had a witty saying ready, or how Alexander Hamilton always spoke in rap.”
“Yeah, I used to think that too. But then I was reading a political science book last month, and – well, isn’t it weird that we’re a perfectly libertarian society? All of the old political philosophers used to say that libertarianism was an ideal system that could only be approached, never reached, and that even the approach would take a dedicated and virtuous population to pull it off. And our population isn’t that virtuous – I mean, just the other day I heard on the news about an ethics professor who went on a violent rampage chopping the limbs off babies.”
“Oh yes,” said Mr. Nett-Worth. “I heard about that too. Terrible stuff, terrible!”
“But it really only clicked a few weeks ago, when these goons from McDonalds broke into my house on a no-knock drug raid and shot my dog, and then muttered something about how surely I couldn’t object to private coercion. And it just got me thinking – what if this whole world is just a thought experiment by a communist with a crappy understanding of political philosophy trying to weak-man libertarianism? And then I thought – frick, I better get some really good vengeful-rich-person insurance, like, right away.”
“I am so confused right now.”
“Well, most sources define libertarianism as a political philosophy emphasizing individual autonomy and skeptical of government intervention. Libertarians come to their position for a wide variety of reasons, including belief that bottom-up local knowledge makes better decisions than top-down absolutism, or that government intervention naturally favors the powerful, or that if you actually ask poor people what they want, it’s usually more money, not people taking choices away from them and treating them like children. A fraction of libertarians – I think a small fraction, though I can’t prove it – are also believers in a deontological theory of natural rights which emphasizes non-aggression as the fundamental moral principle. If you’re doing shoddy journalism aimed at inflaming people rather than enlightening them, you might try to tar all libertarians by identifying them with this subset.”
“How does that explain all the weird things going on?”
“Take the cannibal village. If for some reason you believe the Non-Aggression principle perfectly defines the moral outcome in every situation, it must be pretty devastating to learn it can lead to cannibalism. But if you’re a normal libertarian who just thinks of libertarianism as a political position, then it’s no worse than a supporter of representative democracy learning that representative democracy could sometimes lead to cannibalism – which of course it can. In fact, you should be happy to point out that a libertarian village is much more resistant to cannibalism than a direct democratic or monarchical one.”
“What about the ethics professor’s rampage?”
“If for some reason you insisted property rights were based on perfect axiomatized natural law, it might be pretty devastating to learn that moral philosophy can’t get that kind of precision. But you’re a normal libertarian who just thinks of libertarianism as a political position, then learning that you can’t perfectly axiomatize property rights is no more devastating than learning that you can’t perfectly axiomatize caring about the poor, or thinking torture is bad, or not hacking off babies’ limbs. You’re still allowed to care about these things for the usual reasons even if you can’t construct a perfect moral theory around them.”
“And what about the goons from McDonald’s?”
“If for some reason you believe that only the government can do anything bad, and private companies…look, I don’t even want to speculate on who exactly they’re trying to straw man here.”
“Not straw man. Weak man. There are some real libertarians who believe only the non-aggression principle matters.”
“Maybe, some of them. I think in general they believe there are moral values other than non-aggression – after all, many of them are Christian, and believe in all sorts of moral values – but they’re skeptical of the government enforcing them. Remember, it’s not always correct to insta-convert ethics into law. I think in general they believe both that it’s important for a society to be virtuous, and that the government compelling people to exhibit more virtue than they possess can only go terribly wrong.”
“But there has to be some subset who don’t believe in virtue at all, and think the Non-Aggression Principle is literally all there is! And all these weird thought experiments show they’re stupid, right?”
“I disagree with them but I’m hesitant to declare them stupid just based on a few experiments. I mean, I like to say ‘I’m against torture’, and I like to say this is a strong moral principle of mine and not just a maxim of convenience. But with enough effort, you could create a ridiculous ticking-time-bomb thought experiment in which being against torture led obviously and inexorably to horrible results. Have you proven that people who say they’re against torture are stupid? Or would you be willing to cut them some slack in this situation? And are you willing to cut the same slack to this tiny subset of fundamentalist Non-Aggression Principle libertarians? Thought experiments are a useful tool, but sometimes the best lesson to take from them is ‘things are complicated but principles still matter’.”
“But surely, somewhere, there are incredibly stupid libertarians who think morality consists of the Non-Aggression Principle and nothing else, don’t believe in any other kind of virtue, and aren’t just holding it as a sacred but non-final principle the way you hold not torturing people?”
“Okay. Maybe there are. But how does it help to focus on this tiny pathological subset of libertarians and desperately try to convince the world that every libertarian is like this? There are some pretty pathological socialists too – should we demand everyone accept them as the only possible representatives of socialism? Should political discussion just be relentless weak-manning of the other side, with whoever is more simplistic winning the victory?”
Before Mr. Nett-Worth could respond, the bar we were in started to shake. “What’s that?” he asked me. “What’s going on?”
“A disturbance in the Farce,” I said. “This world was created to provide stupid weak-man arguments against dumbed-down versions of libertarianism. I guess what I just said – it threatened the fabric of reality itself. Hold on to your seat. This could get pretty bad.”
The bartender suddenly stood up. “All blue-eyed people need to leave the bar now!” he said. “As a proud bigot, I refuse to serve blue-eyed people. I don’t care how much profit it costs me! And also, this is the only bar in this city – nay, in a five thousand mile radius! Now no blue-eyed person will be able to go to a bar ever again!”
Scarce had he finished speaking when a very-finely dressed woman stood up. “I am a billionaire,” she shouted. “And I will give poor people money to humiliate themselves. Anyone who goes to the farm and rolls around in pig excrement for an hour, I will give ten million dollars! And many of you have terminal diseases that require expensive treatments, so you’ll die if you refuse! Mwa ha ha! Roll in pig shit! ROLL, YOU PEASANTS!”
But her jubilation was interrupted by another man, in the other corner of the bar. “I am a factory owner, and I am off to go sexually harass all my employees. There are no laws against it, so nobody can stop me. And I own the only factory in the world, so my employees can’t leave. And dire wolves eat anyone who tries to start new factories. So there!”
“You fools,” said a wild-haired man near the window. “I will cleanse this city of scum like you. Since there were no laws against making atomic bombs, I have built a nuke in my basement. Soon I will set it off in a great purification. And there’s nothing you can do about it until it’s too late, because there’s no law against owning nukes. Nobody can stop me! NOBODY!”
I took a deep breath. “I can stop you,” I said. “I can stop all of you.”
Every face turned to look at me.
“This world runs on dumb weak-man objections to libertarianism. The only way to fight them is with even dumber weak-man objections to libertarianism. So that’s what I’ll do. Nobody, blue-eyed or not, is going to leave this bar.”
The bartender scowled.
“Nobody, rich or poor, is going to go to the farm and roll in pig excrement.”
The rich woman looked skeptical.
“You’re not going to go your factory and harass your employees.”
The factory owner frowned.
“And you aren’t going to go set off your nuclear bomb. None of you are going anywhere!”