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.

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A Tax is Not a Price

Originally posted on Notes On Liberty 

According to The Economist, the latest US federal budget includes incentives for “congestion pricing” of roads.

Ostensibly, this is about reducing congestion. But some municipalities like the idea of charging for roads because it represents a new revenue stream. This creates an incentive to charge a price above cost. When a firm does this, we call it a “monopoly price.”

But when a government monopoly forces you to pay a fee to use a good or service, do not call it a price. It is a fee that a government collects by fiat. In other words, it is a tax.

A price is a voluntary exchange of money for a good or service. The emphasis on voluntary is important, because it is this aspect of the price that enables economic calculation for what people really want.  Even a free market “monopolist” (however unlikely or conceptually vague it may be) engages in voluntary exchange. Continue reading “A Tax is Not a Price”

Should Everyone Vote?

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[Originally posted on Mises.ca]

To ask it another way: Is it really a good thing to tell people who are ignorant of law (so they don’t know which proposed policies are illegal), and/or ignorant of economics (so they don’t know what the actual outcomes of proposed policies will be), and/or ignorant of political science (so they don’t know which proposed policies are politically feasible with the actual people and institutions we already have)?

If politics is serious business, shouldn’t people have more than causal understanding law, economics, and political science before voting? How are people supposed to judge platforms otherwise–by what “feels right”? Continue reading “Should Everyone Vote?”

The Maximum Punishment Possible for Nonviolent Marijuana Crimes Around the World

Marijuana mapEveryone knows different countries treat drugs differently. For example, if you get caught buying or selling a large amount of marijuana in Canada, you’re probably not going to get your head chopped off by the government–but in Saudi Arabia, that is the law.

I wanted to see just how different the laws were in world when it came to nonviolent marijuana crimes: that is, if one or more people are breaking a marijuana-related crime (like buying, selling, smoking, or producing) and they didn’t hurt anyone in the process, what is the worst that can legally happen to them? Continue reading “The Maximum Punishment Possible for Nonviolent Marijuana Crimes Around the World”

Against the “Pragmatic Libertarian Case for the Basic Income Guarantee”

Originally posted on mises.ca August 15, 2014

Self-styled “Bleeding Heart Libertarian” Matt Zwolinski is out with a new series of essays defending a “basic income guarantee” (BIG). For those who don’t know, a BIG is a program where the government gives everyone, regardless of wealth or income, a set amount of cash every year. Professor Zwolinksi has previously attempted to justify a BIG on philosophical libertarian grounds, which I considered unprincipled. He is now attempting to justify a BIG on “pragmatic” libertarian grounds. I have issues with this line of defense as well.

Zwolinki’s argument for practicality boils down to four claims: that a BIG is cheaper than the current welfare state, a BIG is less paternalistic, a BIG would require a smaller bureaucracy, and a BIG would remove a lot of the opportunities for “rent-seeking” (meaning it would be harder for the rich and powerful to get special treatment). Zwolinski then attempts to brush aside principled libertarian arguments against a BIG by claiming that a libertarian “Utopia is not an option”. Continue reading “Against the “Pragmatic Libertarian Case for the Basic Income Guarantee””

Against “The Libertarian Case for a Basic Income”

Originally posted on mises.ca on December 6, 2013

Matt Zwolinski, of Bleeding Heart Libertarians fame, has a new post on Libertarianism.org in which he attempts to defend a so-called “Basic Income Guarantee”, whereby the government pays everyone (or a very large portion of people) a minimum amount of money regardless of employment or any other status, using libertarian principles.

I believe he failed in his endeavour.

Zwolinski’s first defence: A Basic Income Guarantee would be much better than the current welfare state.

This has a simple response: Why should the federal government be taking money by force from anyone, for any reason at all? There are many economic costs associated whenever the government purloins the public, of course; but there are also moral issues involved with theft. Just because a BIG may be less paternalistic and condescending to the poor than the current welfare paradigm, as Zwolinski suggests, does not mean that it just and ethical to do in the first place. Zwolinski provides no defense of why the state has either the right or the obligation to take from some to give to others.

Zwolinski’s second defence: A Basic Income Guarantee might be required on libertarian grounds as reparation for past injustice. Continue reading “Against “The Libertarian Case for a Basic Income””

War is not Peaceful

Originally posted on mises.ca on July 24, 2011

In the wake of the senseless, monstrous, and completely unjustified attacks that have claimed (so far) over 90 innocent people in Norway, many of them teenagers, there has been a rather disturbing trend in the media’s coverage of the events: to describe Norway as a ‘peaceful country’, or presenting people who express that view unchallenged:

For instance, the Globe and Mail quotes Hillary Clinton in its lead story on Saturday: “This tragedy strikes right at the heart of the soul of a peaceful people”. And from its Saturday Editorial: “For decades Norway has done far more than its share in spreading goodwill around the world. […] The world owes a debt of gratitude to Norway.”

Here is also the Toronto Star, in an article trying to determine the cause of the attacks: “If there were a peace capital of the world, it would be Norway.”

Others, including the National Post and the Toronto Sun (not to mention international media), are also equally surprised that anyone could have targeted Norway for any reason. But is this sheer and utter bewilderment at all justified? Continue reading “War is not Peaceful”