Why I’m Not Libertarian

Over lunch yesterday, Bryan Caplan explained to me some finer points of standard libertarian legal philosophy. Here is my current understanding (errors mine of course):

Libertarians believe: Each human is endowed with property in his or her own body, and can obtain property in other physical objects, including land, via certain “making” processes. People can trade such property rights via explicit contracts. It is not morally permitted to violate property rights as determined by current contracts, except to defend or retaliate against other violations. Contract violations can happen via “fraud” (= lies) that create deviations between a contract’s words and deeds. (If a contract specifies damages for breach, it is not immoral to breach if you pay the specified damages.) There is more to morality, and within these constraints people should use their property to achieve such other morality.

I’m an economist who appreciates the economic analysis of law. I know how very useful property and contract can be in achieving economic efficiency. But the most efficient forms of property and contract are not obviously only these libertarian ones. For example, many sorts of non-physical property are probably efficient, beyond those that can easily be created via local contracts. It is probably sometimes efficient to initially allocate property in other ways than via the usual “making.” It is probably efficient to endow parents with partial ownership of their children. And it is probably efficient to enforce non-explicit contracts, such as among very large groups.

Yes most libertarians bite these bullets and say the libertarian choices are the moral ones, even if inefficient. But I just don’t find very compelling the morality of this urge to make most everyone worse off on average in order to follow certain traditional rules.

I especially get stuck on the claim that law should limit its attention to “physical,” not info, property and harms. (That’s in quotes because info is completely physical; in fact, there may be nothing physical that isn’t info.)  That is, physical rights are said to be pre-existing, but any info rights must be explicitly constructed by contract. Yet people can hurt each other “non-physically” via info in so many ways.

Many libertarians seem to feel they have discharged most of their info moral obligations if there is a reasonable interpretation of their words which has them telling no clear lies. As someone who spend most of my early economist years specializing in the economics of info, this seems spectacularly inadequate. I wonder if, as kids, libertarians tended to be witty weaklings – losing most fair physical fights, but winning most fair verbal sparring. Perhaps such kids prefer everyone to embrace the slogan “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” because then the people they hurt via words can’t complain, because they can’t even admit they were hurt.

Now as a matter of practice, libertarians and I tend to agree in many policy disputes. Their support of property and contract often promotes economically efficient outcomes. And for that, I salute them. I even say sometimes that I “lean libertarian.” But I cannot embrace the above strict concept of libertarian morality.

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  • “I wonder if people who believe X were abused as children” never ends well.

  • If I read you correctly, Robin, you “lean libertarian” unless it conflicts with utilitarianism, and what offends you about Lockean property is that it’s not always efficient and that it’s not derived from rational, absolute rules.

    As for the first, I would argue that you always have multiple levels of rule-based utilitarianism. You know the example of the doctor dividing a healthy patient to pass out to transplant recipients. I think in aggregate, the Lockean view of property (“libertarianism”) has empirically been the most efficient, in terms of low violence and high wealth-creation.

    You can certainly find counter-examples where Lockean property is inefficient (ie act-utilitarian inefficient) . A metaphor would be “fallow” land forcibly repossessed; surely efficient in the moment, but the higher you go up the “rule” ladder, the less efficient. So, too, I think, for utilitarian competitors to Lockean morality.

    As for the lack of absolute rules that I think offends you, the traditional solution to this is common-law interpretation. For example the distinction between fraud and unpunished omission emerges in the “law discovery” process of the common law. Messy non-absolutes like equity or mens rea have emerged to inform this discovery.

    This kind of ad hoc solution is surely frustratingly hand-wavey to a physicist, but it should appeal to an evolutionary psychologist.

    • Michael Wengler

      That Lockean property is the most efficient in the majority of cases questioned is something I would agree with. I would imagine Robin would agree and it is behind his often siding with libertarians.

      But one of the funniest human biases is to go from “usually true” to “ought to be true.” Marriage usually works for a man and a woman… really speaks not at all to whether it should be restricted that way. Lockean property works for most of the areas we think about… does not suggest a good reason to use it when it doesn’t work.

      Everything should be made as simple as we can, but no simpler. The brilliance of the market for so many things, use it. Where it fails, screw it.

      A pure Lockean paradise is, in my opinion, unstable to the formation of a government. There is a power vacuum and someone will form a group and step in. If you are unlucky, they will look like the Sicilian mafia. If you are lucky, they will look like the founding fathers of the U.S.

      Yes, most things should be Lockean, some don’t work out. That the ratio of the one to the other is high is not, in my opinion, a reason to pretend it is infinity.

      • Great comment off of Prof. Hanson’s great initial OP.
        I’ve been rooting from the sidelines for years for Prof. Hanson to explicitly separate from blinkered libertarianism and break in a more technocratic direction.

  • Hedonic Treader

    It is probably efficient to endow parents with partial ownership of their children.

    The conditions for this to be true are that these child entities can be expected to experience more good than bad experiences, i.e. their lives are worth living from their perspective, and the parent entities are motivated mostly by the partial ownership to create them. Is that correct?

    If so, and if coordination is hard, how can these conditions be enforced? What keeps would-be parent entities to create enslaved child entities in situations in which they are expected to experience more bad than good experiences for the sake of exploiting them?

    • “The conditions for this to be true are that these child entities can be expected to experience more good than bad experiences”

      No dude, this is your own hobby-horse. Trying to will your analytic lense on the rest of us is pretty fucked up, IMO.

  • How do you define efficient?
    Can you give an example of non-libertarian (ie. non-voluntary) allocation which is more efficient, and explain how do you know it is efficient?

    The stumbling block as Rothbard and other libertarians point out is that value is subjective (ie. non-measurable and not comparable between individuals), and actual preferences can only be observed as demonstrated preferences (ie. thru action).

    One way to consider libertarianism is thru the question: “When is it acceptable for me to use aggressive force (or threat thereof) against someone else?”. The answer is, only in defense of my property (including my body).
    Now, this is not a complete definition of morality. There are many actions which do not involve aggression yet people consider immoral. But such actions cannot and should not warrant use of force (such as the law).

    • richrd silliker

      How do you define efficient?

      nice call.

    • jva

      Is it moral for me to use aggressive force against someone sticking a knife in your abdomen in a dark alley?

      In other words – is it moral for me to act on a perceived slight from someone I don’t know to someone else I don’t know, with no compensation (because of no contract) from either of them?

  • Scott Messick
    • Scott Messick

      I garbled the link. Definition of efficiency.

      • richard silliker


        – 5 dictionary results
           [ih-fish-uhn-see] Show IPA
        –noun, plural -cies.
        the state or quality of being efficient;

        Efficiency is a fetish. There is no rational definition for it.

      • Richard Silliker,
        I think efficiency is more than a fetish (to a degree that anything is more than a fetish). Survival is enhanced by efficiency in the context of resource limits and existential risk (perhaps ultimately in the context of entropy?). But if you consider survival a fetish I suppose it’s fetishes all the way down. I suppose the dead (be they people or other algorithms) don’t have fetishes.

      • richard silliker

        Efficiency has only usage, no definition. As to survival, effectiveness is what matters.

      • “Efficiency has only usage, no definition. As to survival, effectiveness is what matters.”


      • richard silliker

        you funny.

    • A few people pointed to Robin’s “efficient economist’s pledge” article in response to my question (define efficient). Unfortunately, it does not define efficiency.

      Efficiency implies some welfare function that can be objectively measured and maximized. Here is Rothbard’s criticism of the mainstream welfare economics (Towards a reconstruction of utility and welfare economics/ ) and his alternative based on subjective value.
      In short, only voluntary actions demonstrate win-win situations where we can objectively state an improvement in “social utility”. Attempts to separate “distribution” from such free-market interactions (production and exchange) cannot provably increase social utility.

  • Many libertarians put the proverbial cart before the horse by starting with property rather than looking for a practical way to live peacefully among other people.

    1. I don’t want other people to use physical violence (or its threat) against me to force me to do what I don’t want to do.

    2. I cannot conceive of a societies with the type of law & culture that minimized the threat of violent coercion against me that would not also minimize the same threat against everyone else.

    3. Such a society will have to have a mechanism for figuring out out “who was the aggressor?” in situations of violent coercion. I don’t want the mechanism biased against me and can’t expect others to allow it to be biased against them so we will end up with some sort of approach where people without obvious reasons to be biased are asked to decide who the aggressor was. I don’t expect the mechanism to perfect, just as reasonably unbiased as possible while be as reasonably likely as possible to correctly identify the aggressor. One example of such a mechanism would be a common law jury. (This would still allow for violent coercion in self defense to stop an aggressor. The question would be “who started it?”)

    4. Specifically, there are situations where the issue of violent coercion would be related to the control of stuff. After the aggressor and victim are identified we can apply the labels “property” to the stuff, “thief” to the aggressor and “owner” to the peaceful victim of the aggression.

    5. The society would almost certainly also have traditions and laws to apply the “property” and “owner” labels before the violent coercion has actually taken place.

    “Property” is thus, to many libertarians, merely a label we apply to stuff not some metaphysical trait of a physical object.

    It also explains why many libertarians are opposed to the concept “intellectual property” as something which tries to justify the use of violent aggression to force peaceful people from doing or saying certain things.

    • Matthew Crist

      “Many libertarians put the proverbial cart before the horse by starting with property rather than looking for a practical way to live peacefully among other people.”

      I’m not quite sure how you can find a practical way to live peacefully when one person is allowed by the state to steal your property. Full enforcement property rights obviate ephemeral notions of practically – as property rights are more fully enforced, people will live more peacefully among other people as each individual has an increasingly strong incentive not to interfere with another’s rights for fear of losing his own.

  • rapscallion

    Properly understood, economic efficiency has no policy implications because inefficiency can never be observed.


  • See also, from The American Conservative:
    “Marxism of the Right”
    “The most fundamental problem with libertarianism is very simple: freedom, though a good thing, is simply not the only good thing in life. Simple physical security, which even a prisoner can possess, is not freedom, but one cannot live without it. Prosperity is connected to freedom, in that it makes us free to consume, but it is not the same thing, in that one can be rich but as unfree as a Victorian tycoon’s wife. A family is in fact one of the least free things imaginable, as the emotional satisfactions of it derive from relations that we are either born into without choice or, once they are chosen, entail obligations that we cannot walk away from with ease or justice. But security, prosperity, and family are in fact the bulk of happiness for most real people and the principal issues that concern governments.”

    Naturally, a conservative group in the USA leaves out the importance of community and health to happiness, but in general, I feel they are going in the a good direction with their analysis.

    Note also that there are “Propertarian Libertarians”, what you and the American Conservative are referring to, and is the common usage in the USA (does that make it “standard”?), and “Libertarian Socialists” such as Noam Chomsky, who come to rather different conclusions on a lot of things, and which may be the more common understanding of libertarian in other countries. There are other types as well; the Wikipedia article on libertarianism goes into those distinctions. So, it is helpful to compare them including to see how they disagree with each other over key ideas like property.

    Also perhaps of interest: “The Mythology of Wealth” at Conceptual Guerilla.

    • > A family is in fact one of the least free things imaginable […]

      I could only understand this statement if your wife was literally forcing you to stay. Otherwise, a family is a voluntary arrangement which is mutually beneficial (otherwise the participants would leave).
      Even children can leave, get emancipated, or maybe seek adoption or guardianship elsewhere (per libertarian ethics, not current US law).

      The family is an institution that is compatible with libertarian principles (ie. non-aggression). Having obligations is not at odds with freedom. For example, employment is voluntary even though it puts obligations on you to show up at work.

      • Hedonic Treader

        Even children can leave, get emancipated, or maybe seek adoption or guardianship elsewhere (per libertarian ethics, not current US law).

        Are there any legal systems on the planet where under-16-year-olds can get emancipated or choose their own guardians against their parents’ will? It seems that more than one and a half decade of life with complete lack of legal autonomy is mandatory for all humans – who were born without consent and without choosing any of the relevant parameters of their context.

  • Anonymous

    Insofar as it can be ascertained, many Libertarians believe non-tangible property laws to be extreme and unfair in that they have a tendency to hinder artist creativity (Copyright laws around ‘likeness’, e.g. Marvel Comics suing over City of Heros game that allows players to create characters that resemble those from its comic books, Mises.org – http://blog.mises.org/3228/copyright-and-video-games/), but would agree with the notion of basic intangible property rights like copyright, intellectual property, patents, trademarks, etc., which are statutory regulations layered on top of historically ‘physical’ only focus on Property Rights (as described as early as 533AD in the Justinian Code, later and most notably in Magna Carta 1215).

    Most Libertarians, exceptions being the extreme ones or Anarcho-Capitalists mislabeled as Libertarians (“minarchists”) , do believe in a form of limited government and the use of a third party a.k.a. public courts for recourse to enforce a violated contracts. These courts are to be used to compel performance on the contract between two parties; when a disagreement occurs between two parties in which the terms written out in the contract ‘violations’ for specified damages are not sufficient for private remedy.

    Libertarians are strict where it comes to their views on physical property rights (property; movable chattel, and real property; a house, non-movable), and while there is much discourse between between ‘left’ and ‘right’ Libertarians when it comes to non-tangible property rights, I’d still say many do believe in them…

    A good Libertarian view on IP: “A good argument can be made that in a world without IP protection, some individuals would be discouraged from producing important goods or ideas (consider pharmaceuticals or genetically altered foods to feed hungry populations).” – Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. and Adam D. Thierer (CATO Institute, “When Rights Collide: Principles to Guide the Intellectual Property Debate”).

    • Charlie

      The quote from CATO scholars is an argument of economic efficiency, not a strictly libertarian argument.

      Bryan seems to be basing libertarian morality on Locke’s property rights. These property rights apply easily to physical property; it is less clear how to apply them to intellectual property. Are all ideas the property of their creator (calculus, touch screen)? Only certain class of ideas (books)? It is helpful to use arguments of efficiency to tease out where to draw the property/non-property line. Locke’s making process is not very helpful.

    • steve

      I think you are correct. IP rights are hardly a settled issue among libertarians. Certainly, not anything like the non-aggression principle.

  • Nikki

    “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,”–this phrase is from the Victorian era, and to me pays tribute to the way in which one was supposed to compose oneself psychologically at that time–which is echoed in Victorian grief ritual, such as the funeral (grief is to be controlled and private–over-much grief would appear ‘selfish’)–which in the long run fueled mid 20th century views of grief as a ‘disorder’. (Pike & Armstrong, ‘A Time to Mourn’, 1980)

    In mainstream psychological discourse now we witness a kind of backlash to that way of thinking, propelled by the idea that keeping feelings inside is ‘damaging’. Where now one is in some ways encouraged to compose oneself raw on the outside, sensitive and fragile to emotional hurt, a victim, and talk about it (a lot). Where a common (and accepted in mainstream) explanation for shortcomings is to point to something emotionally damaging that ‘happened’ to you.

    Kids destined to be Libertarian I would see as more likely to enjoy this later way of interpreting things (that words hurt ‘me’), for the ‘me’ element, but perhaps not portraying it for the lack of ‘strength’ such a disposition connotes.

    Robin’s thoughts on Libertarians and self-centeredness: http://bloggingheads.tv/diavlogs/12535?in=50:54&out=51:05

  • Robin, I disagree strongly with Brian’s strict characterization of libertarianism. There are many branches of libertarianism, and I don’t think Bryan has any authority to read any of them out of the movement.

    In general, libertarians seem to come together on the non-initiation of force, but agreeing on how to achieve that in a practical sense is where the divergence starts.

    I have long agreed with the idea (I think promoted by Marshall Fritz) that anyone who thinks we have too much government is welcome to call themselves libertarian until things change enough in our favor that they think that it’s not too much anymore.

    I have always found your views consistent with libertarianism. But you’re welcome to not consider yourself libertarian if that’s more comfortable for you.

  • Drewfus

    I especially get stuck on the claim that law should limit its attention to “physical,” not info, property and harms.

    What non-physical laws do you support or propose, Robin? Or is that topic for an upcoming post?

  • Robin Hanson may very well be the clearest and deepest thinker on the planet, so it’s no small problem when he blogs “Why I’m Not Libertarian”. Let’s see if we can rescue his inner libertarian.

  • Zac Gochenour

    I think it would be interesting if Robin provided some examples where his views differed from his guess as to what a typical libertarian would believe. I’ll note that there are probably as many types of libertarians as there are people who call themselves libertarians, and that the only really defining thing about libertarians is that they believe that people ought to have, in general, much more individual liberty than they currently have.

    Robin says he doesn’t “find very compelling the morality of this urge..” but does he find any idea of morality very compelling? Is there a difference between “moral” and “efficient” ?

    I wonder what definition Robin gives to “morality.” It would also be interesting if Robin made a list of real policy disputes — concrete examples — which he finds himself at odds with libertarian morality.

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  • I think the most important thing to come to grips with is that there is no such thing as ‘Objective Morality’. There are only moralities shared by a group, which makes that group outcompete other groups with different moral norms.

    Some moral rules have ‘stood the test of time’, and are thus more or less universally adopted in most successful cultures: Theft, murder, females should cover their areolas in public, etc…

    Other moral rules are still up in the air: Drive on the left/right side of the street?, Is it OK to pay cash for blood?, Are DRM systems good or bad?

    Societies that get the economically important moral rules right, out-compete those societies that get them wrong. It is that simple.

    So there isn’t an objectively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer to the question of the legitimacy of Intellectual Property. There is only the matter of which society will prosper and grow faster, and thus survive. (Survival is oddly enough one of those generally accepted moral ‘good things’, gee I wonder how that came to be?)

    I find it incredible that anyone would think that a society hampered with copyright/patent law would outcompete a free society. Ideas are economic prosperity generators. How could one possibly think that restricting their use would be generally beneficial?

    Robin is a clear thinker, and so I’m hopeful he can show me the error of my thoughts here, because the evidence doesn’t appear to support it from my point of view. Open source software, fashion, and now even finance.

    Bitcoin exemplifies something that is likely to be a HUGE economic game-changer, explicitly because it is so unencumbered by the molasses of IP.

    Note that I’m not against DRM in general, just government mandated/coercive DRM. If somebody comes up with a scheme that people want to _voluntarily_ buy into, more power to them. Obviously, if it is voluntary then it is likely that all parties are benefiting in the trade, and is thus economically beneficial to society in general.

    Think of it this way: copyright/patents are viable only when they are globally enforced with credible threats of violence. The owners of patents/copyrights behave as a cartel. In order to explain that IP is good, one must explain why cartels in general are economically beneficial to society. If you can’t do that, then you aren’t thinking it all the way through.

    • Matt, you don’t know much about patents. Patents now are only enforced locally, within a country. There are no “global” patents, all patents are only national.

      All a patent does is allow someone to bar someone else from making, using or selling the patented thing. In the case of pharmaceuticals, many are only patented in industrialized countries, they are not patented at all in Africa. This includes antiretrovirals. If someone wanted to (and there was no patent in Zimbabwe), they could set up a factory to make and sell antiretrovirals in Zimbabwe. Good luck with that because the market for antiretrovirals in Zimbabwe is poor because the people are poor. Manufacturing costs of pharmaceuticals in Zimbabwe would be high because it lacks the infrastructure of commerce and good governance. That has nothing to do with patents because patents don’t apply.

      The reason pharmaceuticals need patent protection is because there is a very large barrier to entry, the finding of the correct chemical to use to treat a disease, the testing of that drug to ensure it is safe and effective and then manufacturing it. It would be trivial to copy a drug and sell it without going through all of the R&D to find it and verify it was useful.

      If you want to develop drugs and sell them without patent protection, no one is stopping you. Good luck raising money to hire the people to do the work if you have no way to protect your IP and pay that money back.

      Why don’t Libertarians go to places where there is “real” liberty, like Somalia? Places where there is no “nanny state” to enforce contracts and prevent violence? The reason is because Libertarians really like their “nanny state”, so long as it is protecting what they want protected.

      • Hey daedalus2u,

        Correct, I’m not an international IP expert.

        However, anyone who creates a patent of any scope will file in each country they think will be relevant. Also, foreign nationals can use the local governments to sue (I believe the relevant treaty is the “Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property”). So, yes, all laws are enforced locally, but since foreign nationals have the same standing as citizens in each country, this isn’t a relevant point. Patents for all practical purposes are global.

        I also grant your point that once patents exist, it is impossible to ‘unilaterally disarm’ and compete in the same system without them. Similar to any other government granted monopoly. But it doesn’t follow that in a legal system without patents that one couldn’t raise capital for innovation (R&D). Again look at the fashion or software industries for examples of this.

        The question is whether more drugs would be created in a system where everyone could copy and build upon everyone else freely, or if those protections are necessary to ‘spur innovation’. My position is that those protections cost more than they create. Humans naturally innovate, and their is plenty of incentive to create helpful drugs.

        Just because I currently enjoy contract and ‘real’ property protection aspects of government, it doesn’t follow that I like/respect all aspects of all government institutions. Slavery was once legal, but that didn’t mean that anti-slavery people hated all government institutions.

        BTW, I really consider myself more of an anarcho-capitalist. But I’m also a realist, and see that ideal as merely the direction to head towards in the far future, when society naturally evolves to that point, not something to get upset over if it doesn’t happen tomorrow.

        For now living where I do (the USA) the opportunities are better than Somalia, but that doesn’t mean that anyplace is perfect. Like slavery, some poor institutions, even if they are ‘ingrained’ in the system, can be exorcised once enough people realize costs outweigh the benefits.

        Maybe I’m naive but I still have hope. 🙂

      • Actually you can unilaterally disarm. If you discover something and publish it, then no one can patent it. Ever. Anywhere. But anyone can copy it.

        Fashion designers do have copyright and trademark protection. Software producers have copy-protection methods.

        I am not saying that patents are perfect, but a “free market” where monopolists can control the market isn’t perfect either. If someone ever gains a monopoly on a necessity, they can then use that monopoly to control everything else.

        In a sense that is what totalitarian governments do, they have a monopoly on violence, so if you want to live violence-free, then you need to do what the totalitarian government says. If someone had a monopoly on food, they could do the same thing. They could extract as much value out of the economy as they wanted to because people have to eat. Most people spend a tiny fraction of their income on food because food is cheap. If someone had a monopoly on food, it would not be cheap.

        A monopoly on financial transactions can do the same thing. That is what the US financial markets are trying to accomplish, a monopoly on financial transactions. Why do credit cards charge merchants so much? Because they can and the existing credit card market excludes new comers. The monopoly position of credit card companies is (IMO) a major reason why we don’t have micropayment systems. The per-transaction charge by the credit card companies is too big. What is the actual “cost” of doing a transaction? The hardware plus software cost, plus the interest on the money while in transit, plus the cost of fraud. Better security could cut fraud by a lot, but there is no need for better security because the credit card companies charge merchants so much.

      • Dale Sheldon-Hess

        “Fashion designers do have copyright protection.”

        No, they do not. All they have are trademarks. There are some interesting arguments claiming that the lack of copyright protection is the reason there is such a high rate of new designs in the industry.

        Which is the point Matt Taylor was making when he asked people to “look at [those] industries.”

      • oldoddjobs

        Because Somalia is a shit-hole, duh.

    • steve

      I think the moral argument for patents was based on the extreme secrecy of some of the craft guilds in the middle ages. The Masonic Guild for instance was originally a craft organization that kept very secret the knowledge needed to build strong fortresses. Patents were an attempt to bring such secrets into the open by providing a temporary monopoly. Today this monopoly time has grown from years to decades. Mickey Mouse for instance is still under copyright despite it being >50 years after the creators death. Mysteriously, the copyright laws seem to change every time this copyright nears expiration. Monopolies for perpetuity clearly violates their original intent.

      It is also questionable whether such Guild secrets could even be maintianed in the modern age obviating the original use of patents. Certainly, electronics can be rather easily reverse engineered these days. Although, perhaps in bio-engineering it would be difficult to tease out which genes had been altered and how without the exposure of patents. Of course, this would be mitigated that you could just save the seed from altered crops or whatever without actually knowing how the origianal variation was made.

  • Mike Rappaport


    I very much agree with your post (which is no surprise as I am a welfare consequentialist) except for one thing. There is no good reason to accept Bryan’s definition of libertarian. His definition excludes moderate libertarians. In all other political ideologies, one can be moderate or extreme, but somehow not so for libertarians. Robin, you are a moderate libertarian (same as me) — someone who believes in the main in libertarian institutions. I would also say that Bryan and other libertarians hurt libertarianism when they define the position so narrowly, but that is another matter.

  • Caplan admits there are degrees of libertarian purity, as scored on his libertarian purity test. But of course there is more than one dimension of libertarian purity; in fact there are at least two dozen free variables in libertarian ethical theory.

    Those free variables help explain why it takes a
    scorecard to keep track of the major schools of libertarianism. Hanson himself proposed in 1997 to use “Econ-Libertarian” to describe libertarians like him who “seek institutions whose consequences make most everyone better off according to their own estimation”. The Libertarian Party Platform Committee has worked over the last few years to make the platform more ecumenical to various kinds of libertarians, but we’re not done yet.

    Matt, I agree on the question of objective morality. Your point about threats of violence can be applied to any form of “property”. Hanson’s argument is that ideas are indeed prosperity generators because of their positive externalities, and so he favors any institutional arrangements that will maximize those positive externalities. He sees prosperity as his trump card, not yours.

    • Mike Rappaport

      It is true that Caplan’s test measures degrees of libertarian purity. But the definition that Caplan was reported to have given does not. Caplanian libertarians are forced to acknowledge that people have different levels of libertarian purity, but they don’t define the position that way.

  • RA

    If Libertarians were true Libertarians, they would not believe in property at all. They’d recognize like the bear and the wolf that they were born owning the entire world and it is not for anyone to take that right away from them. They are not obliged to someone’s naive idea of property.

    Whatever they come across is theirs unless there is someone else owning it at the time and too big to take it from.

    • oldoddjobs

      So a child born five minutes ago in Laos actually owns a share of my house? Fascinating gibberish.

  • Perhaps I’m marking myself, but witty-weakling rules sound fairly attractive. Speech is fairly easy to avoid directly (earplugs, if worst comes to worst), and it’s hard to claim that your interest in reputation supersedes the interest others have in hearing unpleasant things about you.

  • IP is not efficient at all. That’s a dumb thing to even think.

    • Intellectual property can (for the most part) be protected with end user agreements by making a condition of sale of the property that the property not be duplicated and may not be transferred without the same conditions being attached. Of course, many people violate such agreements, or would if they could, including many people who consider themselves libertarians.

      For people who claim to respect property and contracts, it is disingenuous and hypocritical to not respect IP when protected by EUA. What is “property” is in the eye of the person who created it. If you don’t think such a thing has any value, then don’t use it. If it does have value, then why doesn’t the person who originally created that value own it and so own the ability to control it? If you have received the property without paying for it, or from someone who has violated the EUA, it is stolen property.

      As far as economic efficiency, that always depends on the goals and the means. I could meet my economic goals more efficiently if I enslaved everyone else. That might reduce the efficiency at which my slaves reach their economic goals, but they can have the satisfaction that my goals are being reached.

  • “Why doesn’t the person who originally created that value own it and so own the ability to control it?” For the same reason that the young woman you saw yesterday at the beach shouldn’t be allowed to bill you every time you remember her. If you create information that is valuable, what you own is not the information, but rather an option to disclose it (or not) through your freedom of association. You’re free to try to profit from that option through some combination of contract, insurance, bonding, watermarking, accrued reputation, tipping, etc. But you’re not free to impose your own price on someone who has never contracted with you about it and who isn’t putting his own price tag on it.

    What is completely non-rivalrous cannot be property. So while you can’t own information per se, you should be able to own the reputational and commercial advantage of being the original creator of information, because those advantages are rivalrous. Therefore copyright should at most protect you from people selling the information you created, or from claiming they created it.

    For those who think that free copying will lead to the underproduction of new information, please explain why we don’t seem to have a dearth of architectural styles, jokes, riddles, hairstyles, fashion designs, flower arrangements, landscape designs, bumper stickers, web site layouts, children’s names, mottos, neologisms, definitions, playlists, dance moves, and recipes.

  • Here’s my response, which is also a blog post on my site: http://astrohacker.com/ahc/why-i-am-libertarian


    It is unethical to use force. Government, which has a monopoly on force, is inevitably abused by individuals acting in their own interests, which will inevitably conflict with the interests of others. And such a system can never be stable, because the people who lose will force the system to change. This fact is all that is needed to understand the flaw in Robin Hanson’s position against Libertarianism, which he explains in Why I’m Not Libertarian.

    Hanson’s argument—that, apparently, there should exist entities that force us to do stuff—seems to rest on two principles: 1) Libertarianism is less efficient than a hypothetical planned society. 2) Libertarians have an irrational attachment to contracts because they were physically abused as children. The second point is an ad hominem and has nothing to do with whether or not Libertarianism is the correct position to hold. The first point, that an efficient planned society is better, seems to forget that people’s interests do not always overlap, and thus the people planning the efficient society are obviously going to place their own interests above the interests of others. Thus we must recognize that because it is unethical for the planners to force people who would lose to participate in their society, such a society can never be stable. The only stable society is where everyone’s right to freedom from force is recognized equally and universally. Such a system could never be designed by rational humans who have their own interests in mind.

    The power of the state to force people to do stuff will be abused by the people who have the most power, unless those people are irrationally acting against their own best interests. But irrational behavior can never be sustained, because rational behavior will always beat it. So the power of the state to force people to do stuff will actually necessarily be abused in the long run. How do we fix this? The only resolution to this that I see is to scale the size of the state down to the individual. All this requires is that we merely recognize that this is already the case. We are our own sovereign states. If you find that you are in a situation where you are being forced to do stuff to serve someone else’s interests, then use your power as a sovereign state to change your situation.

    In summary, government is unethical because it forces people to do stuff. And it is always self-interested people behind the abuses of this power. Hanson’s argument that Libertarianism is not efficient ignores the fact that the people who design the “efficient” system will, as rational agents, place their own interests above others, and will thus find themselves constructing a system that will inevitably collapse as the people who lose in the system force it to change. (However, an efficient and stable system may evolve naturally, without having been designed by self-interested individuals at any point.) The solution to this is to recognize that we all are sovereign individuals, with our own interests, and we can, and we will (insofar as we are rational) act in our own best interests, and will not accept being forced to act in someone else’s interests for long. Liberty is realizing this.

  • Anto

    I’m a cooperative libertarian, that thinks cooperation is more moral, fair and producing than competition. Mind it, in the so called free concurring society eventually cartels always prevail in different form, here we go, cartels are a form of cooperation, a libertarian society based on free agreement can’t prevent it. The bad think is nowadays competitive money idol obsessed society has a fragmented form of cooperation like cartels, a free agreement which happen to be convenient to the category but bad for consumers, so consumers are a category outside this fragmented cooperation, every category has a restricted form of cooperation, but nothing like global respect a acknowledgement of each other’s effort to make society prosper, the work of everyone and thus sharing everything among those who contribute. In this way there wouldn’t be elites exploiting labour of masses.

    • oldoddjobs

      You have discovered that “cooperation” (sounds good!) is more moral fair and productive than competition? Wow.

      No doubt the word “competition” here means “a fight to the death over a given resource”.

      Orwell made the same error. “The trouble with competitions is that someone always wins them.”

  • richard silliker

    You never own your children, they own you.

  • mjgeddes

    Some years ago I switched my allegiance from Libertarianism to a political system known as Georgism.


    Georgism is a truly odd combination of certain ideas from both radical libertarian thought and radical socialist thought. Remarkably, this curious cocktail of wild political strands all hangs together.

    The basic idea of Georgism is the abolition of all income taxes and its replacement with a single LVT (Land Value Tax) on land (or in extended form, all natural resources). Income from the LVT is used to fund the government, and (in some variations), its redistributed in the form of the Guaranteed Minimum Income (GMI) instead of welfare. The idea that wealth from natural resources should be shared commonly, whereas wealth from all other sources should be left to an entirely free market.

    Not sure what Georgism has to say about IP, but it seems that it’s a ‘mirror-reversal’ of conventional Libertarianism as regards physical/information. In Georgism, natural resources aren’t subject to ordinary property rights, whereas all other source of wealth (presumably including information) would be.

    So for those who want to be truly contrarian, give Georgism a try.

    • I am pretty sure this would not work for humans. Males are far too territorial to agree to something like this. Maybe if males were disenfranchised it would work, but then just about any system would work if males were disenfranchised.

      Males have such a gigantic compulsion to acquire territory because in evolutionary times, having territory, or a good territory or a big territory was the only way that males acquired mates.

      As they say, all is fair in love and war. This is because all that matters is who survives and who reproduces. This is the problem with sports as a metaphor for war and with commerce as a metaphor for sports. If you treat commerce as war, that is treat those you deal with as enemies to be defeated and in the limit killed (leaving individuals without the means to survive (food, shelter, clothing, health care) is the same as killing them), then don’t complain when lethal force is used against you.

      This is something that the faux Libertarians (mentioned by RA above) don’t appreciate. They want a nanny government to protect their property even as they refuse to support that nanny government and deny others the ability to survive. When (not if) such a system breaks down, it is not a pretty sight.

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  • Georgism isn’t so much an alternative to libertarianism as a flavor of it — called geolibertarianism (aka Green Libertarianism). The basic idea is just this:

    Keep all you make. Pay for all you take.

    All persons have an equal right of access to the natural commons of the Earth, which is air, water, land, minerals, wildlife, spectrum — everything that is not created by persons. The best way to protect Earth’s scarce resources is with the the free market. For the market to be truly free, people must not only enjoy the full benefits of their actions, but also pay the full costs. With green pricing, each person pays the full costs he imposes when he depletes, pollutes, congests, or monopolizes the commons. Green pricing creates permanent and automatic incentives for conserving the Earth’s shared resources.

    Geolibertarians favor taxes/fines only on aggression — e.g. polluting, depleting, congesting, or monopolizing the commons. In practical terms, this means
    * policing negative externalities through green pricing (e.g. pollution taxes)
    * protecting unowned natural resources with severance fees
    * financing club goods (e.g. highways, bridges, pipes, wires) through usage/congestion fees
    * financing public goods (e.g. streets, flood control, national defense) by taxing the extra land value they create

    Those who hold land (monopolize a site) have its value increased by local public services. Public services that can’t be supported by user fees should be financed only by recovering the extra value they create in the free market for land. This encourages efficient land use (infill, mass transit, mixed use, more open space) and creates pressure to defund public services that the community does not actually value.

    How to apply geolibertarian principles to IP like patents? One way is through a patent value tax. The policy would for a limited fixed term grant exclusive rights to profit from an invention, in exchange for an annual tax that is a fraction of the inventor’s declared value for it, with that fraction increasing linearly to unity by the end of the patent’s term. Anyone may buy the patent by paying the current owner more than owner’s declared value, as long as the buyer also pays the incremental patent value tax.

    • Seems like a fancy way to get from libertarianism to boring technocracy. Pigovian taxes, etc.

      • mjgeddes

        Monopolies and insurmoutable coordination problems as regards natural resources are what kill off the standard Libertarian ideology.

        It’s really astonishing that so many smart folks (especially transhumanists) ever gave standard Libertarianism any credence at all, especially since it runs totally contrary to evolutionary psychology ( to give two examples: (1) most people have an in-built cognitive revulsion to treating living things/natural world as commodities, and (2) people at the bottom of the status pole eventually get pissed and want to get even (see the riots of the London yobs). )

        Georgism corrects for all the blatant flaws in standard Libertarianism, whilst still retaining all its strengths. By putting natural resources/land into the common pool, at a stroke the main cause of monopolies is eliminated, as are most coordination problems. Using LVT (Land Value Tax) to fund a gauranteed minimum income at a stroke does away with the need for all the bureaucracy of government welfare, whilst at the same time eliminating poverty. Finally, the LVT at a stroke eliminates the need for income tax altogether, thats ZERO income tax, at last unleashing the full power and efficiency of the market for all areas other than natural resources,.

      • Peter David Jones

        It’s not difficult to see why Ayn Rand ignored EP. She didn’t even believe in evolution.

      • oldoddjobs

        You first have to define what you mean by “standard libertarianism”.

      • I think you are looking at this as a female and not a male. Female bonding is mediated through oxytocin and recapitulates parturition. Male bonding is mediated through vasopressin and recapitulates territoriality. Conceptually males do treat females as property. To males, the natural world is territory, something to be owned and used or bought and sold.

        People at the bottom are not actually “people” any more. People at the bottom don’t matter, which is why they can be treated as things to be used and used up. That is why OSHA safety regulations are so objectionable, they only protect “workers” and cost “owners” money. It is better for owners to simply pay a risk premium to workers stupid or desperate enough to tolerate risky work conditions. Death, injury and chronic disability to workers are risks that owners are willing to take.

        Unemployment is really high now. That means there are more workers than there is work for. That means owners can reduce wages and increase work hazards until a new equilibrium is reached.

  • steve

    I think Robin Hanson is onto something even if it is not the point he intended to make. The world could use a lot more libertarians (or near libertarians) masquerading as something else. It sure worked for the Socialists.

  • Todd

    I have three basic questions for all would be political economists:

    1) If physicists conflated velocity with position the way you conflate income with wealth, where do you think technology would be today? Why do you think economic technology would be any better?

    2) If the primary function of government is to uphold property rights, then why is government funded by taxing economic activity rather than taxing property rights?

    3) Why don’t you ever answer the first 2 questions?

    • The primary purpose of government isn’t property rights. They’re just something that exists.

      • AR

        They’re just something that exists.

        What is “just something that exists”? Government, or property rights?

        The primary purpose of government is property rights. You can’t have property rights without government. The degree to which a particular government provides property rights varies according to time and place. If an external government i.e. gang or individual that provides property rights doesn’t exist, and you protect the property over a given territory, then you are the government of that territory.

      • oldoddjobs

        “You can’t have property rights without government.”

        False. For evidence I cite human history.

  • Todd

    The problem is conflation of the function (net in-place liquidation value of assets) with the derivative (income, capital gains, value added, sales, etc.).

    The result of this conflation is a brain-dead discourse in political economy.

    OF COURSE people who have vast property rights should pay more for the existence of the entity that upholds those property rights — just as they should pay more for property insurance.

    OF COURSE people who make X dollars a year should have zero tax burden as a result of those CHANGES in their net in-place liquidation value of assets.

    • oldoddjobs

      Well, it has been 3 years Todd. OF COURSE everyone should have listened to you by now.

  • Todd

    That creation of wealth is taxed rather than possession of wealth is precisely what is wrong with the tax base. Taxing creation rather than possession is precisely backwards from the fundamental standpoint of proper statecraft.

    When you create something you are not costing society anything. When you possess something you are: the cost of defending your right to possess that thing.

    It’s that simple.

    Every piece of wealth, be it gold, land or a corner grocery store, in society is, to degrees varying with their “monopoly” status as property rights, made more valuable by such systemic benefits of easily reproducible innovation. Land is special to economic theorists, particularly to Georgists, because it is the classic case of a fixed asset that everyone needs but which “they’re not making any more of”—hence containing a large degree of monopolistic value.

    Of course, invention comes in many guises—not just putting together a better mechanical contraption—and those inventions, be they ways of doing business or ways of organizing communities or some scientific discovery that clarifies our relationship with nature, also increase the value of properties with which they are distantly related.

    • oldoddjobs

      The cost of defending property is not a patch on the cost of, ahem, extra-curricular government activity shall we say.

  • Todd

    A solution and one that sometimes seems near to being realized in various places around the world at various times in history, is to collect the portion of value that rains down upon all properties within civilization from innovators—value which can be called “economic rent”—and instead of allocating it according to sophistry of politicians, lawyers, academics and storytellers, simply divide it up evenly amongst all people. This solution does not, of course, completely solve the problem, but it does at least prevent the horrendous genocide of creation seen during the last decades where a small number of third-rate inventors are grotesquely rewarded with monopoly profits and held up as an example of how well-compensated innovators are, so that the rest, including first-rate inventors, can have their wealth, hence potential children, confiscated by parasites.

    The quantification of economic rent is pretty simple—it is the “no brainer” profit stream expected from an asset. Banks routinely estimate this when giving out loans when they assess the collateral value of the borrower’s assets. This is generally done by taking what is called the “liquidation value” (more precisely, the “orderly liquidation value in place”) of an asset and applying the “risk free interest rate” to that value. Liquidation value of an asset is the value that virtually anyone could get from it if they were handed title to the asset and told to go sell it in a reasonable period of time. The “risk free interest rate” is usually the rate of return guaranteed by the government when you loan it money for short periods of time.

    These mechanisms operate in the “civil” environment—an environment characterized by governments—an environment capable of supporting high value assets we typically associate with “cities” (which shares its linguistic root with “civil”). However, if we are to be rational about the interests of the individuals entering into an agreement to establish and maintain “civilization” it must be admitted that they would not wish to turn over to it that which they, themselves, possess by virtue of existing as human animals—the ability to defend their homes, families, tools and small-holding of land, fishing rights or other natural resource with which they can support their reproduction. If they were to turn over such individual sovereignty they would become in essence slaves to civilization. Hence in a free society, it makes sense to leave in the hands of individuals that portion of economic rent accruing to them by virtue of their subsistence properties—again, for emphasis (since this seems to be the point where I lose the most people’s reading comprehension) we are talking about some amount of assets sufficient to be equivalent to the ownership of a small family farm and all of its equipment.

    • oldoddjobs

      You lose people’s reading comprehension because you use ten words where one will do.

  • http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2011/08/on-libertarianism-and-atheism.html

    I disagree with Penn Gillette on libertarianism and atheism (he thinks the two have a common origin of rational skepticism). I think what the two have in common is that nerdy white guys are into them. I’d advocate technocracy as a better direction for nerd passion than “libertarianism” -a majoritarian identity politic of the more competent.

    • El

      Your bias against “nerdy white guys” is affecting your ability to think rationally.

    • oldoddjobs

      I thought they were macho “don’t tread on me” types clinging feverishly to their guns and their bible? Still white though, so obviously evil.

  • ProfBob

    A libertarian future is predicted in Book 9 of the free ebook series http://andgulliverreturns.info
    Very interesting

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  • I like the moral argument here; it’s what I focused on my explanation of why I am (no longer) a Libertarian: http://danielmiessler.com/blog/why-im-no-longer-a-libertarian. For me it comes down to a morality based on individualism (see selfishness) or shared human experience, and I simply choose the latter.

    • Daniel Blois

      individualism does not mean selfishness.

    • oldoddjobs

      How lovely and fluffy “shared human experience” sounds! Not like nasty selfish individualism yuk!

  • Amaroq

    I just came across this thing that was linked on facebook. I haven’t been to this site or LessWrong in years.

    I’m an Objectivist, which can technically be grouped in with Libertarian, since Libertarian is a broad category including anyone with some non-aggression principle.

    The concept of “efficiency” depends on other concepts, such as value and cost. The concept of efficiency refers to maximizing a value while minimizing the costs required to create/gain/keep it.

    My main criticism of this post is this: The author is taking for granted a utilitarian “maximum happiness for all” type of valuation when he talks about efficiency. This type of efficiency is posed to us as if it is the only kind of efficiency there is. But it’s not. It’s only efficiency from the perspective of the utilitarian ethics.

    I have chosen Ayn Rand’s rational egoism as my ethics. And so I could easily say that the most efficient society is what allows each individual to create and earn values for themselves. Then in that case, Laissez-Faire Capitalism would be more efficient than Socialism, Communism, etc.

    When you say Libertarianism isn’t efficient in this context, all you’re really saying is “I disagree with Libertarian morality.” This talk of efficiency just covers up that core premise and suggests that Libertarianism being wrong is self-evident.

  • CentralCharge15

    No, this is only a criticism of deontological libertarianism, not the consequential, moderate sort.

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