A Right is Not an Obligation

Originally posted on Notes On Liberty

Precision of language in matters of science is important. Speaking recently with some fellow libertarians, we got into an argument about the nature of rights. My position: A right does not obligate anyone to do anything. Their position: Rights are the same thing as obligations.

My response: But if a right is the same thing as an obligation, why use two different words? Doesn’t it make more sense to distinguish them?

So here are the definitions I’m working with. A right is what is “just” or “moral”, as those words are normally defined. I have a right to choose which restaurant I want to eat at.

An obligation is what one is compelled to do by a third party. I am obligated to sell my car to Alice at a previously agreed on a price or else Bob will come and take my car away from me using any means necessary.

Let’s think through an example. Under a strict interpretation of libertarianism, a mother with a starving child does not have the right to steal bread from a baker. But if she does steal the bread, then what? Do the libertarian police instantly swoop down from Heaven and give the baker his bread back?

Consider the baker. The baker indeed does have a right to keep his bread. But he is no under no obligation to get his bread back should it get stolen. The baker could take pity on the mother and let her go. Or he could calculate the cost of having one loaf stolen is low to expend resources to try to get it back.

Let’s analyze now the bedrock of libertarianism, the nonaggression principle (NAP). There are several formulations. Here’s one: “no one has a right to initiate force against someone else’s person or property.” Here’s a more detailed version, from Walter Block: “It shall be legal for anyone to do anything he wants, provided only that he not initiate (or threaten) violence against the person or legitimately owned property of another.”

A natural question to ask is, what happens if someone does violate the NAP? One common answer is that the victim of the aggression then has a right to use force to defend himself. But note again, the right does not imply an obligation. Just because someone initiates force against you, does not obligate you or anyone else to respond. Pacifism is consistent with libertarianism.

Consider another example. Due to a strange series of coincidences, you find yourself lost in the woods in the middle of a winter storm. You come across an unoccupied cabin that’s obviously used as a summer vacation home. You break in, and help yourself to some canned beans and shelter, and wait out the storm before going for help.

Did you have a right to break into the cabin? Under some strict interpretations of libertarianism, no. But even if this is true, all it means is that the owners of the cabin have the right, but not obligation, to use force to seek damages from you after the fact. (They also had the right to fortify their cabin in such a way that you would have been prevented from ever entering.) But they may never exercise that right; you could ask for forgiveness and they might grant it.

Furthermore, under a pacifist anarchocapitalist order, the owners might not even use force when seeking compensation. They might just ask politely; and if they don’t like your excuses, they’ll simply leave a negative review with a private credit agency (making harder for you to get loans, jobs, etc.).

The nonaggression principle, insofar as it is strictly about rights (and notobligations), is about justice. It is not about compelling people to do anything. Hence, I propose a new formulation of the NAP: using force to defend yourself from initiations of force can be consistent with justice.

This formulation makes clear that using force is a choice. Initiating force does not obligate anyone to do anything. “Excessive force” may be a possibile injustice.

In short, justice does not require force.


If Famous Economists Were Bodybuilders

Imagine if all your favourite economists were also bodybuilders, power lifters, or just generally into fitness. What would their names be?

John Maynard Gains (famous for his Gainsian Crossfit)
Milton Frieweights
Ludwig von Mirin
Murray Rothbuff
Friedrich Biyek
Thomas Swole
Ben Bulknanke
Pump Krugman
Joseph Stigliftz
Alan Growspan
Janet Flexen
Elinor Ostrong
David Ricardio
Adam “invisible gains” Smith Machine

On Symbolism in Science


[Originally posted on Mises.ca]

[Note: Many economists justify their use of unrealistic mathematical models by reference to “the map and the territory”: that mathematical models are merely a map to the territory of the real world, and that a “perfect” map wouldn’t be a map at all. The origin of this metaphor is an extremely short (only 145 words!) story called “On Exactitude in Science,” which recounts an ancient myth of map makers who made the perfect map as big as the empire, which unsurprisingly turned out to be useless. However, I have recently uncovered a second part to this legendary tale, which elaborates on what happened when the map-makers abandoned their desire for realism….]

… The New Cartographers, having long ago abandoned their obsession with exactitude, had a new focus: prediction. Thus, they crafted a System of Symbols to simplify and minimize the size of their Maps, while maximizing their predictive Power. But the Symbolism became so complex and divorced from Reality that, instead of occupying a small Corner, Map Legends occupied many Pages—and required trained Expertise for interpretation. Hiring Teams of Map Interpreters became the norm for Travelers, creating many Employment Opportunities for the New Cartographers. Yet the Maps were so confusing, that even with Professional help, Travelers still lost their way in spectacular Fashion. In fact, as the Symbolism grew more complex, and the Fees of the New Cartographers skyrocketed, more Travelers failed to ever reach their Destination. And soon, for Reasons of Self-Preservation and Economy, both the New Maps and the New Cartographers were discarded.

–Suarez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLVI, Lerida, 1658

What is the Motte and Bailey Fallacy, with Examples from Economics

A “motte and bailey doctrine” is a style of argument (and informal fallacy) that’s based on a motte-and-bailey castle. The bailey is a big courtyard and where people live and work and generally want to be. The motte is a mound with some kind of fortification on top, that’s used as a last refuge when the bailey is under attack.

motte and bailey

A motte and bailey doctrine for arguments goes like this: someone is usually making an argument from a big and comfortable courtyard of ideas, being very liberal with their terms, accusations, and implications. But when someone attacks their argumentative “bailey”, they retreat to a “motte” of strict terms and/or rigorous reasoning. They can’t be attacked at the motte because even their opponent would agree with their definitions and reasoning. The problem is that the motte and the bailey are different arguments: often to get to the bailey, additional assumptions are required; sometimes the arguments are even contradictory.

In short, to argue from the motte is to argue from a strongly defensible position, whereas to argue from the bailey is to make broad and far reaching statements that are poorly defended. Continue reading “What is the Motte and Bailey Fallacy, with Examples from Economics”