Murder by Libertarianism

I’ve written more and more in-depth on the problems with libertarianism before, but in this post, I’d like to delve into a specific absurdity of libertarianism. Let me start by summarizing Nozick’s understanding of why he feels there is no exploitation in economics. He argues that people cannot be faulted for taking actions that limit the opportunities of others even beyond the point that some of those others have intolerable lives. The implication is that, while unfortunate, these people’s misery is justly derived and nothing should be done to alleviate it because any form of redistributive justice would assault the rights of the beneficiaries and thereby, be unjust.

In a section of his magnum opus, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, where Nozick discusses capitalism and force, he claims that what limits the choices determines whether or not an act is voluntary. He further claims that when choices are limited by other peoples’ rightful actions, the remaining choice is “voluntary”, even if it is limited to a single option. He helpfully provides a concrete example of his position: imagine 26 pairings of marriage partners A-Z and A1-Z1, so that A1 is the most desirable for all letters and A is the most desirable for all primes, B1 and B are the second most desirable, and so on through the list, so that Z1 and Z are the least desirable in each group. Naturally, we could assume that A and A1 would get together, thus delimiting the options of all the rest by removing themselves as available options. Sure, B1 would like to get with A, and B would like to get with A1, but they simply do not have that option. The actions of A and A1 getting together limits the actions of all the others but is just. By rational extension, B and B1 get together, C and C1, etc., until we reach Z and Z1. In this case, Z and Z1 have no choice but to marry each other or remain single. Nozick asks, have they been forced to make this decision or is it still voluntary on the part of Z and Z1? 

Nozick’s point is not that the situation is not unfortunate for Z and Z1, but that the only alternative, forcing one of the other couples to not get married or give up their chosen partner to make the situation of Z or Z1 better, is worse. In this Nozick is right, however, that’s not the whole story. Nozick has chosen a rather disanalogous example. Z and Z1 are of course free not to marry without being harmed. Would the situation be different if they would be killed if they did not marry? Would a threat of death be enough to change the ethics of the analogy?

Imagine the same situation except for this time a dictator threatens each couple with execution if they do not agree to choose any mate. Would there be a violation of rights? I imagine Nozick would say yes, it is the dictator who violates the rights of the couples. But let us tweak the situation slightly again, and this time say that the dictator will only provide food to those individuals who agree to marry so that if they do not, they will starve to death. Here, you are free to choose the harm, but the question becomes is it within the rights of a dictator to choose how food is distributed? Again, Nozick would probably argue it is not. However, if the dictator choosing how food is distributed is a violation of individual’s rights then would it be less so for the dictator to decide to distribute food on the grounds of who worked to produce it? If the dictator doesn’t have the right to choose the one method, they do not have the right to choose any. Let me try one more tweak before we quit this example: imagine this time instead of a dictator, we imagine an incredibly wealthy individual, who gained his wealth through entirely justified means. This individual has had his love rejected by you and as a result, he has made it his life’s goal to revenge himself on your romantic endeavors. Towards this end, every time you have fallen in love, he has paid off your would-be lover to quit you so that you are never able to marry. Would this still be just according to libertarianism?

I think it must be! It meets all the libertarian criteria for “voluntary” action. The spurned suitor has the right to spend their money as they like, and the would-be lovers have the right to break off with you in exchange for his money. It may seem unfair to you, but it is not unjust according to libertarianism. It would be a breach of justice to protect your happiness by interfering in the rights of the spurned suitor. But if this is justice, would it be different if the actions were deadly? This time imagine the same rich individual, except now he’s decided to escalate matters and take your life. In this case, every time you go to buy food to feed yourself, he offers the food purveyors more money to sell it to him instead. This is well within his rights. He is simply buying food. Since he has a right to do with his money as he pleases and the money is indubitably his, and purveyors have every right to get the best price for their food, all the transactions are therefore legitimate. Through the exercise of his rights, the spurned suitor is able to prevent you from buying any food, effectively and willfully starving you to death.

The Nozickian libertarian must conclude that it would be perfectly just for the rich man to starve you in this manner. This reductio ad absurdum comes about because libertarianism insists that the government cannot take any action to prevent your death as long as the agent of your death were legitimate in their actions preventing you from getting any food for a long enough period of time to intentionally cause your death. The fact that this scenario is highly unlikely is immaterial. The point here is that libertarianism allows such absurdities as part of its ethical ideology.

The fact that the spurned suitor is not buying the food to use, but merely to prevent you from having it is also immaterial. This could only be seen as a violation of your rights if and only if we observe something like the troublesome Lockean proviso that forbids ownership in the event that there is not “as good and enough left over” for others. I will spare the details of Nozick’s treatment of this proviso, except to say that he doesn’t explicitly reject the proviso; he merely points out the unsatisfactory nature of it as a solution. Sadly for libertarians, there seems to be no alternative. They are forced into a dilemma between accepting a dangerously unsatisfactory proviso or uncomfortably admitting that there are ways in which it is permissible to intentionally murder another individual under the ethical framework provided by libertarianism.

If you accept my argument, it is but a small step to the idea that there are other places where libertarianism leaves gaping holes in its ethics. I am perfectly willing to suggest that at least one such hole is its treatment of owner/laborer negotiations under capitalism. It’s entirely keeping with Nozick’s premise that if the situation is unacceptable in an individual instance it is equally unacceptable at larger scales so that the reductio ad absurdum given above is sufficient to condemn libertarianism altogether.

However, as I do not agree with his premise, I will not offer such an argument here. Instead, I would want to show that the situation is no better on a large scale. The ultimate condemnation of libertarianism comes from the fact that it can be found absurd both individually and socially. Imagine a situation in which a rich man, goes on accumulating through legitimate means until the whole of the Earth is their exclusive property. This, when combined with the minimal state and without the Lockean proviso, would create an autocratic libertarian nightmare. Such leverage would make all life entirely dependent on the will of this libertarian autocrat, annihilating the possibility of free choice since one would have to “voluntarily” agree to whatever the autocrat asks of them or die or watch their family die, or both, or worse. At this point the difference between the worst kind of authoritarianism and libertarianism vanishes and the two become identical. Libertarianism requires only that the autocrat has derived his total leverage via “legitimate” means. So on this scale too, libertarianism could justify absurdities.

I obviously believe that it is a failing of libertarian ideology that it can be used to justify totalitarianism. A zealot of the ideology could always argue that libertarianism is correct despite such arguments and the unlikeliness of such extreme situations reinforces this view. But I am not one to follow absurd ideas. On the other hand, this condemnation of libertarianism should not be read as a suggestion that governments can or should dictate all aspects of individual life. It only suggests that there are times when society has the right to intervene in the lives of its members. Freedom is not always the best policy, although it is generally the best policy. There are the places where we slip beyond the ethical into the political, and such places are blind spots for libertarians. It is in these places, however, that libertarianism must give way to libertarian socialism if it is to retain the aspect of justice.

 

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