Animal Torture Violates Rights: A Response to Walter Block

Introduction

Walter Block is one of the most highly esteemed libertarian theorists in the world today.1 The Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Chair in Economics and Professor of Economics at Loyola University, Block has written hundreds of articles and books on the intricacies of libertarian theory, even a cursory review of which reveals the tremendous depth and breadth of his thinking.2 Block’s logical consistency is impressive, and his iconoclastic scholarship on such weighty issues as militarism and drug prohibition warrants praise from anyone dismayed by abusive governmental power.

Notwithstanding his important insights on other topics, Block joins fellow libertarians Murray Rothbard,3 Tibor Machan,4 Roderick Long,5 and Jan Narveson6 in promoting unsound ideas about animal rights.7 According to Block, animals lack all rights because animals cannot: 1) petition for the right not to be tortured or 2) “promise to respect” others’ rights and “follow through” on that promise.8 Therefore, like several of his libertarian peers, Block concludes that humans should be allowed to torture their animal property with impunity.9

Block’s opposition to animal rights necessarily informs his ideas about a medley of serious issues. For example, it inclines Block to support the right of slaughterhouse operators to keep all the money they make from killing animals painfully. It also inclines him to support the right of private industrialists to pave over animal habitats.10 To understand the full implications of animal rights doctrine in a society based on Lockean property rights, we will eventually have to consider these ancillary positions at length. In this short essay, though, I provide just a basic refutation of Block’s case for legalizing animal torture.11 The first section describes Block’s argument, the second section enumerates my objections to Block’s argument, and the conclusion follows.

Block’s argument

On a personal level, Block opposes animal abuse, calling it a “highly immoral” practice.12 He also predicts, perhaps optimistically, that judges in some future libertarian society will not “land too heavily” on vigilantes fighting animal abuse.13 But because libertarianism prohibits violence against humans alone, Block maintains that the legal right to torture one’s own animals is an unavoidable corollary of libertarian doctrine.14

Though he does not mention it in his 2015 article “Animal Torture: A Critique of Thick Libertarianism,” Block has elsewhere claimed that a non-human species could theoretically gain rights if it petitioned for rights and sincerely promised to respect the rights of others.15 Block extends this principle to entities that may not be “animals” as we generally understand them, suggesting that humans’ libertarian obligations to extraterrestrial beings, for example, would also depend on those beings’ ability or inability to articulate an authentic affinity for rights.16

Problems with Block’s argument

There are three related problems with Block’s argument. First, Block assumes from the outset that the human-animal division is morally significant, even though that division’s moral significance is the very thing that Block needs to prove. Second, Block seems to make the inappropriate assumption that individuals have rights if and only if they can articulate a sincere respect and desire for rights. Third, Block pays inadequate attention to sentience when determining who has a right not to be tortured.

Let us begin with the first problem. To determine whether animals have rights, Block outlines what we may call the “articulation standard,” asking whether animals can request rights and convey an honest willingness to respect the rights of others. Because animals cannot meet this standard, Block reasons, animals have no rights. But the question itself is specious, which becomes clear when we imagine applying Block’s standard to a human group. Let us imagine, for example, using Block’s formula to determine whether human babies have rights. Unpalatably, Block’s logic would yield the conclusion that human babies lack all rights, seeing as babies can neither petition for rights nor promise to respect the rights of others.

In reality, Block has expressed support for human babies’ rights. Although he condones parents’ limited use of spanking for disciplinary reasons, Block acknowledges that grisly child abuse—grinding babies to death without anesthetic, for example—does indeed violate babies’ rights.17 It is clear, then, that Block is not prepared to hold all human groups to the standard to which he holds all animal groups. In order to justify his use of the articulation standard, though, he would need to apply it to animals and humans alike. His failure to do so suggests that he is simply intent on denying rights to animals.

Block could now respond that human babies, unlike animals, have rights because other (i.e. older) members of their species meet the articulation standard. But that response would reveal the crux of his argument’s problem. In trying to prove that all humans deserve special protection, Block’s argument unfairly assumes from the outset that traits common among other members of one’s species is what matters morally. We could just as easily, and just as unjustifiably, assume from the outset that the traits common among other members of one’s age group is what matters morally, and we could frame our question and answer accordingly: “Does the individual belong to an age group that has requested rights, pledged respect for rights, and followed through on that pledge? If not, then he deserves no rights.” Because this arbitrary formulation would deprive human newborns of rights simply because of their membership in a group—a group invoked for no particularly good reason—Block would properly deem the question unfair. However, Block’s own formulation, which promotes rights for human babies but not for their equally articulate animal counterparts, is also unfair. For that reason, we should reject Block’s question as well.

It is of course possible that Block would at this point agree to hold every individual equally to the articulation standard. But even if that would make his reasoning more consistent, the articulation standard itself would remain woefully misguided. A couple of case studies should elucidate this second problem with Block’s argument.

Suppose that an Apple computer were built in the shape of a human body, dressed up like a human, and programmed to say, “Please don’t torture me, and I will not torture you.” Let us also assume that this computer, designed to help and not to hurt humans, would “follow through” on its promise not to torture people. Because this computer’s utterance would sound like an earnest petition for and commitment to rights, Block’s reasoning would lead us to support rights for this computer. But if this computer forever lacked sentience, then recognizing its “rights” would be bizarre indeed. For although the computer could say that it dislikes torture, the computer would not actually feel an aversion to torture. Indeed, the computer—what with its inability to process emotions or physical pain—would lack all preferences on all matters pertaining to its own wellbeing. Therefore, offering rights to this computer would make no more sense than offering rights to tables, chairs, pillows, and other objects that are perpetually apathetic to the treatment they receive.18

Although the group of individuals who meet the articulation standard does not overlap perfectly with the group of individuals who actually desire a right not to be tortured, perhaps Block would respond that all individuals who want rights can express an affinity for rights (even though not every entity capable of expressing an affinity for rights actually wants rights). But as Block implicitly recognizes in his other writings, it is simply not true that everyone who wants rights is capable of articulating an affinity for rights. To return to a previous example: human babies are incapable of articulating any desire or respect for rights. Human adults with severe cognitive impairments may be similarly incapable. Schizophrenics overwhelmed by delusions, hallucinations, and paranoia might also fail to request and pledge respect for rights with any more coherence than an animal. And yet Block still recognizes that human infants, the cognitively impaired, and the mentally ill want and deserve rights.

Block is not alone. It seems axiomatic that sentient human beings who have harmed nobody, even if they are amoral and inarticulate, have a right not to be tortured under normal circumstances. To understand why, we should consider Rothbard’s assertion that humans have property rights because humans “transform their environment in order to prosper.”19 In other words, humans have property rights because humans can make use of and desire the benefits of property rights in a way that rocks, rivers, and other uncreative entities cannot. Although Rothbard opposed animal rights and therefore failed to embrace the logical implications of his own reasoning, Rothbard’s premise made sense. There is good reason to believe that an entity should receive a negative right when the entity actually wants, and perceives a benefit in, the protection afforded by that negative right.20

When we use Rothbard’s premise to assess the morality of torturing animals, we necessarily conclude that torturing innocent sentient animals does indeed violate rights. This conclusion brings us to the final problem with Block’s theory of animal rights: it neglects the importance of sentience. Because a sentient being can experience pain, it should be clear that all sentient beings have an interest in avoiding the distressing experience that torture entails. To put it in terms that Rothbardians ought to appreciate: it is “natural” for sentient beings, given their aversion to torture, to have rights against torture. That the inarticulate—the cognitively impaired, the psychologically troubled, the young, and, yes, the non-human—cannot eloquently express their affinity for these rights does not matter. What matters is that all sentient beings, unlike perpetually inanimate objects, want not to be tortured. If that desire warrants official respect when it belongs to humans, then it also, at least presumptively, warrants official respect when it belongs to non-human animals.

Conclusion

According to Block, the sole purpose of law is to regulate human interaction, meaning that the treatment of animals should be resolved privately.21 Of course, Block is allowed to advocate this viewpoint, but so are we allowed—perhaps even called upon—to condemn the morally arbitrary and misguided calculations that bring him to his conclusions concerning the abuse of non-human species. Because it would greatly exaggerate the importance of agents’ articulateness and vastly understate the importance of their capacity for pain, any legal system permitting unprovoked assaults on sentient animals would be unjustified.

Notes

  1. Newsmax labeled Block one of the 100 “most influential libertarians.” See “100 Most Influential Libertarians: A Newsmax/FreedomFest List.” Newsmax. June 1, Accessed July 3, 2017. 2017. http://www.newsmax.com/BestLists/libertarians-newsmax-freedomfest/2017/06/01/id/793510/.
  2. For a list of Block’s publications, see “Walter Block Publications.” Accessed July 3, 2017. http://www.walterblock.com/publications/.
  3. Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (New York and London: New York University Press, 1998), 155. This book was originally published in 1982.
  4. Machan, Tibor R. “Do Animals Have Rights?” Public Affairs Quarterly 5, no. 2 (April 1991): 163-73. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40435778.
  5. Long, Roderick T. “Why Fur Is Not Murder.” Praxeology.net. January 26, 2003. praxeology.net/unblog01-03.htm#13.
  6. Narveson, Jan. “Animal Rights.” Canadian Journal of Philosophy 7, no. 1 (March 1977): 161-78. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40230681.
  7. “Animal” in this essay means “non-human animal.”
  8. “Walter Block – Q&A Session [Australian Mises Seminar].” October 6, 2013. Accessed July 4, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLqEk3BKoiQ&t=1m15s.
  9. Block reaffirms his commitment to this position in Block, Walter, and Steven Craig. “Animal Torture.” The Review of Social and Economic Issues 1, no. 4 (2017): 82. http://rsei.rau.ro/images/V1N4/Comm2-ANIMAL%20TORTURE.pdf. Although this recent journal article should be addressed in its totality on another occasion, what matters now is that this piece articulates Block’s apparently unchanged, if grudging and uneasy, view that animal torture is permissible under the libertarian legal code that he favors.
  10. Of course, Block could still theoretically oppose the right of slaughterhouse operators to keep their money and the right of private industrialists to pave over animal habitats. That opposition, though, would not stem from a commitment to animal rights.
  11. I am focusing on Block’s case for legalizing animal torture under normal circumstances, which means that I am ignoring some crucial ethical questions while addressing others. For example, I am not contemplating whether it should be legal to torture one animal in order to save the lives of many more sentient beings. But I am contemplating whether it should be legal to debeak, dehorn, violently penetrate, and confine animals in close quarters in order to facilitate the production of meat, dairy, and eggs for American consumers who can survive without animal products.
  12. Block, Walter, and Stephen Montgomery. “Animal Torture: A Critique of Thick Libertarianism.” The Review of Social and Economic Issues 1, no. 2 (Spring 2015): 106. Accessed July 4, 2017.
  13. Ibid., 106.
  14. Ibid., 106-107.
  15. “Walter Block – Q&A Session [Australian Mises Seminar].” October 6, 2013. Accessed July 4, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLqEk3BKoiQ&t=1m15s.
  16. “Walter Block – Q&A Session [Australian Mises Seminar].” October 6, 2013. Accessed July 4, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLqEk3BKoiQ&t=2m00s.
  17. Grinding babies to death is my example, not Block’s. I use it because the egg industry lethally lacerates millions of male chicks every year. See McKenna, Maryn. “By 2020, Male Chicks May Avoid Death By Grinder.” National Geographic. June 13, 2016. Accessed July 4, 2017. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2016/06/by-2020–male-chicks-could-avoid-death-by-grinder/. For Block’s treatment of children’s rights, see Block, Walter, Ed Smith, and Jordan Reel. “The natural rights of children.”Int J Health Policy Manag, 2014, 85-89. doi:10.15171/ijhpm.201.
  18. In granting rights to these objects, then, we would be placing unnecessary restraints on the way that individuals with preferences treat these objects.
  19. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, 155.
  20. Perhaps entities can have rights even if they lack a present preference for rights. For example, anesthetized humans, notwithstanding their temporary unconsciousness, probably have a right not to be touched aggressively. My present claim, then, is that sentient beings have rights—not that sentient beings alone have rights. Another essay is necessary to investigate this matter more thoroughly.
  21. Block and Montgomery, “Animal Torture,” 105.

This article originally appeared at C4SS.org

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Where War Begins

This is “Where War Begins,” my poem decrying various wars waged against humans and non-human animals both. Many thanks to Jonah Bregstone and Adrian Craig for recording me. Go vegan!

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Vegan Musings on Retribution

 

The more evil I encounter in ordinary places, the more convinced I become that many criminals withering away in prison are not alone responsible for their crimes. In this respect, they resemble my “non-criminal” friends who regularly commit unconscionable acts. They resemble many readers of this essay, some of whom are probably committing objectionable acts while reading this essay. And they resemble me, in that I have also committed horrid acts condoned by the culture and legal system surrounding me. But because I cannot bring myself to believe that we “normal” people deserve incarceration, I am starting to doubt also that widely condemned criminals deserve the harsh punishments they receive.

Let me back up. Although I have not always been, I am now vegan and will remain vegan until I die. I refuse to consume animal products, because I consider it wrong to torment sentient beings for fun. I take comfort in the fact that many people share my sentiments. Most Americans recognize, at least in theory, that it is unethical to torture sentient creatures needlessly.

When it comes to animals, though, our actions often contradict our words. We teach children to respect animals, but we pay businesses to castrate male pigs without anesthetic, to impregnate cows via “rape racks,” and to destroy chickens’ beaks, sometimes so profoundly as to prevent the victims from eating. We chow down on lobsters dismembered and boiled alive, drink milk wrested from hapless goats, and flaunt wool ripped from the backs of abused sheep. All told, we Americans kill billions of animals annually. We “peace lovers” sometimes participate in this odiousness without a hint of irony, having convinced ourselves that it is possible to respect sentient animals while harming them. Others of us simply ignore the contradiction, content to promote peace in the streets while unthinkingly ingesting corpses in the dining room.

Others of us claim that non-human species—because they are less rational and morally informed than humans—actually deserve nothing better than their inferior treatment. But this justification begins to collapse when we remember that the newborn human babies we so adore, as well as some cognitively impaired adults, are no more rational or morally informed than the animals that humans eat and wear regularly. And even if we somehow manage to circumvent this reality of “species overlap,” we fall short when we then try justifying the unsettling idea that rational and morally informed beings are the only ones who deserve torture-free lives in the first place.

Most meat-eaters are not malicious, though. Many non-vegans are actually deeply compassionate.

They assist sick relatives, donate to the needy, hold doors for strangers, and even mourn the deaths of their pets. True, non-vegans seem not to extend their sympathies to the animals they consume. But away from the dinner table, a good many non-vegans are as kind as can be. Some meat-eaters, like Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., and Noam Chomsky, even manage to achieve global renown for agitating on behalf of the oppressed.

This puzzling reality—that otherwise moral individuals voluntarily commit patently immoral acts—gets me thinking about the logic of retributive justice. Understandably, many Americans believe that murderers deserve death or life in prison for the crimes they commit. Although I have long opposed the death penalty because I fear wrongful executions, I have also never much doubted that actual killers deserve death. Nor have I ever categorically opposed life sentences without the possibility of parole. Like many Americans, I have thought that individuals who voluntarily commit unconscionable acts should have to take responsibility by suffering unpleasant legal consequences.

But my sentiments are changing. Whenever I see restaurants full of “normal,” “good” people slathering parcels of dead cow with barbecue sauce, I remember that barbaric cultural norms can motivate humans to act against their better judgment. I have thus concluded that people are not singly responsible for their misdeeds and that many retributive punishments today are too harsh.

If you struggle to understand this point, consider just how prevalent the denigration of animals really is. Every time they drive on the highway, meat-eaters are likely to encounter advertisements for sliced turkey lodged between hunks of bread. They are likely to send their children to public schools that serve decapitated chickens for lunch. They are bound to see televised models and actors proudly flaunting accessories made from alligators. In light of our world’s intractable addiction to the flesh of non-human species, it is hardly surprising that meat-eaters treat non-human animals like garbage and respond with confusion, indignation, or contemptuous laughter when a dissenting somebody suggests (accurately) that there is no meaningful moral difference between torturing a random cow and torturing a random human baby.

I am inclined to believe that many criminals—the ones who assault humans—are similarly inspired by other violent people to become violent themselves. Research on the adverse effects of child abuse vindicates my intuition. When only one child in a twin pair experiences abuse, the abused twin is markedly more likely than his similarly situated non-abused twin to embrace criminality. Causality is difficult to prove, but surely it is no far stretch to hypothesize that abuse teaches its child victims that aggression is a fine way of dignifying oneself, of showing the world that one’s wishes should not and cannot be ignored. And although the data on single-parent households do not definitively prove that growing up without a parent increases one’s chances of committing crime, the disproportionate amount of fatherless prisoners may very well suggest that fatherlessness, and perhaps the poverty with which it is associated, pushes children in a violent direction.

I say none of this to understate the severity of horrific crimes. For me, as for many people, there is hardly anything more infuriating and heartrending than unprovoked violence. Nor do I say any of this to suggest that we should permit dangerous individuals to roam freely. However, I maintain that we should restrain criminals primarily in pursuit of public safety, not retribution. And if we do remain committed to restraining criminals largely for the sake of retribution, in order to give them “what they deserve,” then we should at least urge judges to account for criminals’ unchosen circumstances when handing down sentences.

Ultimately, though, defeating cultures of violence will require more than finger-pointing and confinement. It may be tempting to treat mainstream criminals as “different” from us, but that would overlook most Americans’ serious, if banal and accepted, participation in the brutal slaughter of billions of sentient beings that have done nothing to deserve pain. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans have contributed to this monstrosity, which makes it both practically inadvisable and morally questionable to treat retribution as a panacea. Let us instead try to promote respect—for humans and animals both—through education and rehabilitation of offenders. It may be our only hope.

This article originally appeared at goodmenproject.com

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Does Animals’ Meat-Eating Justify Our Own?

I do not think that humanity can justify its mass consumption of sentient non-human animals. However, some humans try to justify it by pointing to the carnivorous behavior of other species. “If alligators and pigs consume animals,” these meat-eaters figure, “then why shouldn’t we?”

There are several answers. First of all, it appears that most carnivorous creatures cannot yet survive without eating animals. Perhaps that does not justify their aggressive behavior, and maybe humans should intercede for animal-carnivores’ unfortunate victims by restraining belligerent creatures and working harder to create plant-based diets that are suitable for carnivores’ consumption.

That said, we must draw a moral distinction between those organisms that need to consume sentient animals and the human meat-eaters who do not. Killing for survival is surely not so egregious as killing for pleasure, and humans who slaughter animals usually do it for pleasure (or what we call “taste”).

Of course, not all animals do need to consume other animals. Omnivorous pigs, for example, can survive on plant-based diets. It is therefore legitimate for humans, much like guardians who prevent toddlers from pummeling each other, to prevent pigs from eating other sentient beings. 

But even if humans never manage to protect all prey from wild omnivores, humans’ own assaults on sentient animals will remain illegitimate. As we should know instinctively, other agents’ aggressive behavior cannot justify ours. If American parents tried mutilating their daughters’ genitals on the grounds that “parents in other countries do it with impunity,” we would laugh them out of the room. We would recognize there—as we should recognize here—that other actors’ failure to fulfill their moral obligations does not vindicate a similar failure on our part.

However, it is still possible that humans, despite their moral obligation to herbivores, have no moral obligation to those omnivores that eat sentient herbivores. For unlike herbivores (which eat insentient plants) and carnivores (which must eat animals), these omnivores needlessly inflict suffering on peaceful animals. Maybe it is moral, then, for humans to “punish” these predatory omnivores by killing and consuming them.

This line of reasoning, which essentially counsels the death penalty for non-human omnivores, should give us pause. Readers categorically opposed to the death penalty ought to reject the idea out of hand. For if it is wrong to execute humans who kill needlessly, then it is also wrong to “execute” bears, foxes, and whales that kill needlessly.

But even death penalty proponents should not support executing predatory omnivores. Capital punishment supporters moved by arguments from deterrence should realize that flesh-eating animals, because of their inability to understand the law, would not be deterred by the legal threat of death.

Death penalty proponents interested in retribution should be skeptical as well. Ruling it unconstitutional to execute cognitively impaired murderers, Justice John Paul Stevens noted in Atkins v. Virginia that executing somebody with a “diminished ability to understand and process information, to learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, or to control impulses” does not serve the death penalty’s retributive purpose. New York State similarly recognizes diminished guilt for offenders who “lacked substantial capacity to know or appreciate either that [their] conduct was against the law or that it was against commonly held moral principles, or both.” If only “the worst of the worst” deserve the death penalty—as eminent pro-death penalty scholar Robert Blecker argues—then predatory omnivores incapable of grasping the gravity and nature of their offenses should not be killed.

Granted, some literature suggests that certain animals do have the capacity to differentiate right from wrong. If people want to use that literature to try proving in a court of law that the predatory omnivores they kill deserve death, then they should be allowed to try. But if we permit the execution (and consumption) of predatory omnivores on the grounds that these moral agents violate other creatures’ rights, then—for equality’s sake—we must also be willing to execute (and feast upon?) humans who kill herbivorous deer, sheep, and rabbits. Maybe it is wisest, then, just to drop the retributivist justification for meat-eating altogether.

This set of excuses, based on the idea that animals’ predation justifies humans’ predation, may be tempting. Those searching for a reason to keep consuming animals might even think they have found the perfect alibi: they are doing nothing worse than their own victims do. Ultimately, though, other actors’ moral shortcomings cannot excuse our own, and subjecting predatory omnivores to a massive regime of capital punishment has scary implications that hardly anyone would accept.

This article originally appeared at unfetteredequality.com. The painting is Pieter Aertsen’s A Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms.

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A Debate on the Rights of Non-Human Animals

Friends,

I urge you to watch this important debate between Gary Francione and the late Tibor Machan regarding the rights of non-human animals. I think you will find Francione’s case quite strong.

 

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Liberty and Peace with Sheldon Richman

I recently sat down with author, editor, and left-libertarian extraordinaire Sheldon Richman to discuss political philosophy. Here’s the video!

You can also find a transcription (slightly edited for clarity’s sake) below.

_____________________________________________________________________________

TR: Good evening, everybody. I’m Tommy Raskin.

I’m speaking today with Sheldon Richman. He is a polymath, a libertarian, a leftist, a rabble-rouser. He is the executive editor for the Libertarian Institute. He has worked with the Cato Institute in the past, and we’re really happy to have you here, Sheldon.

SR: Great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

TR: Great. Now, I figure that a conversation isn’t much fun if we don’t have someone playing devil’s advocate. I find much of your work very compelling and persuasive, but I’m just going to push at the bounds of propriety a little bit (if that’s OK!).

SR: Please.

TR: Now, you’re an anarchist. What does that mean? What does it mean to believe that there should be no government whatsoever?

SR: Well, the shorthand is—you can buy a button that says this—anarchism is the radical idea that other people aren’t your property. What it means is all human relationships must be peaceful and consensual, which of course leads to—as I see it, at least—respect for persons’ justly acquired possessions (in other words, property rights) as well as the personal integrity of their person, their life, and property. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So, it just means that the traditional functions that libertarians and classical liberals have been willing to concede to the state—namely, defense against invaders, courts for the peaceful resolution of disputes (like contract disputes), and also prosecution of criminals (people who violate other people’s rights)—those functions can be and over history have been handled in non-forcible ways. In other words, there’s no need to give the state a monopoly on the use of defensive force.

TR: I suppose that the concern that some people have is that if we do not have one overarching entity that is capable of resolving disputes between two parties that otherwise would not come to the table to negotiate—if we did not have one overarching entity that was capable of forcing an aggressor to pay his/her victim some sort of recompense or restitution—that those who are the richest, those with the most guns, would just bully those with fewer weapons into submission. Is that a fear that you have?

SR: Well, it’s a very common concern. I don’t have it. The logic of that, of course, would lead libertarians, or ought to lead libertarians, to call for a world government, because we do already live in an environment of international anarchism. (I was going to say anarchy. Unfortunately, people take that to mean chaos, and of course I don’t mean it that way.) We have international anarchy because there’s no world government. So who settles disputes among governments? Well, governments have lots of bilateral and multilateral agreements for resolving disputes. Most countries are not at war with each other. Most governments are not at war. There are always wars going on, although I think historically we’re at a small number of wars going on relative to earlier periods in the past if you believe Steven Pinker, for example.

TR: Sure.

SR: So if anarchy can exist at that level, aren’t we now just arguing over the level? Which reminds me of an old joke: we know what you are, we’re just haggling over the price! Old joke. Maybe not in good taste! But to transplant it to this subject: every libertarian I know is an anarchist and is just haggling over what level. Because I don’t know any anarchist who wants to turn the U.N., let’s say, into the world government.

TR: Right. Well, that was a point that I often made to folks at the Cato Institute—I was there this summer—who said that it would simply get too confusing if Sheldon had his own private defense agency and Tommy had his own. And I said, “Well, right now, Indonesia and East Timor, France and Libya, Iraq and Kuwait exist in a state of anarchy with each other. If you think that this is a problem, then you must support a world government.”

But to push back on that line of reasoning: couldn’t some libertarians say, “Well, yes, we don’t have a world government, and we have had chaos! We’ve had Iraq invade Kuwait. We’ve had the United States invade Iraq. We’ve had France invade Libya. We’ve had Indonesia invade East Timor. Wouldn’t it be a good thing if there were some global superstructure that were capable of adjudicating disputes between these two parties?” And again, I certainly recoil at the thought of something like that. But is there a certain logic there that you’re willing to flirt with?

SR: Well, we know enough about states to know what risks we take. States are dangerous. We know that. There’s the famous quotation, of course—that’s wrongly attributed to Washington, because no one’s been able to find anything Washington wrote—but the idea that government is not eloquence, it’s not reason, it’s force. To finish this up—it’s a fearful servant and a monstrous master. That’s not quite right, but that’s the point. So we know for public choice reasons and just knowledge of human nature and how incentives work if you create this monopoly, don’t assume good things are going to come about. Decentralized power has typically been favored by liberals. I’m using “liberals” in the classical liberal sense and libertarians’ thinking. It’s better to fragment power. What would a world government be? It would be the ultimate centralization of power.

I assume it would be a world federalist system of some kind. There is still an organization called the World Federalist Society. They want a world government. But what would stop the sub-governments from fighting with each other? So we know how governments work. We know what the bureaucratic dynamic is. It’s for self-preservation. It’s for mission creep. It’s for expansion. Why would we have confidence in that? If we’re worried about governments, it seems to me what we want is competition, not monopoly. And this goes back to—it happens to be on my tie—the great Gustave de Molinari, who was a friend of Bastiat’s. He hung out with that crowd of European liberals in the 19th century. And he wrote an essay, which is famous among libertarians, called “The Production of Security,” which is available online. And he pointed out that if competition is good, why isn’t it good in the production of security? Why do we accept either communism—as he put it— or democracy in security when we won’t accept it in manufacture of shoes and farming and other stuff like that? So I throw it back on the other side.

The other thing is I wrote an article recently called “Come and See the Anarchy Inherent in the System,” which actually is a play on an old Monty Python and the Holy Grail movie. Great movie, by the way. But there’s an early scene where a man who claims to be king is roughing up a peasant, and the peasant is saying, “Come and see the violence inherent in the system!” I want to make another point. There’s anarchy—even anarchism, in the good sense I mean it—even in the current system, by which I mean there’s a good deal of cooperation that no one will ever enforce by the use of violence. For example, we have a change in presidents coming up. We’re not going to have to force Obama to leave the White House and to let Trump in. That’s not very likely.

What keeps him from doing that? It’s not that he fears the army or the FBI is going to come at gunpoint and remove him. Why does he do that? And why do presidents enforce the laws passed by Congress? Or why do martials enforce orders from judges? It’s not because anybody’s holding a gun to their heads. It’s because they’re embedded in a system of incentives and custom. And so it’s expected that they’ll do that and the cost would be very high to them if they didn’t do it, not in the sense that somebody would point a gun at them and they’d be shot. But again, it’s the incentive system that’s already embedded in the system. So even in a state system, you have this ultimately resting on social consensus.

It’s been pointed out many times by David Hume and others that the number of rulers in any society is very small compared to the number of ruled. So governments ultimately can’t rule by force. They have to rule by people generally supporting. Now, they may support it for bad reasons—they might not even realize that they may have been indoctrinating into supporting it through the government schools and things of that nature—but ultimately the government operates. Force is in the background, of course. But most things go on without the government ever needing to use force. Now, it can.

So anarchism also rests on, I’ll say, social consensus, for lack of a better term. In other words, people expect things. Customs always arise in any society, and they can be, in a way, rigidly enforced by people shunning people that don’t observe basic customs (let’s say respect for other people). And so there are means that don’t involve physical force of enforcing customs, taboos, and—you know—etiquette. Down to the minutiae of etiquette. My point here is that the advocate of limited government can’t throw at the anarchist that “your system ultimately rests on cooperation,” because their system also ultimately rests on cooperation. Because if a significant number of people said, “We refuse to pay taxes,” the government doesn’t have enough guns or enforcers. Because we way outnumber that. So ultimately it’s relying on people cooperating. Why is it that totalitarian government puts so much money into propaganda? Because they can’t rule purely—purely—by force.

 

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Antiwar Minarchism

This essay has two objectives. First, it will illustrate the differences between “minarchist” and “anarchist” understandings of international warfare. Second, it will demonstrate that international warfare generally violates minarchist principles. If it succeeds in this latter respect, devoted minarchists will finish this essay confident that they can and should protest militarism.

Let us begin with some definitions. Ayn Rand labeled government “an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area.” Minarchists welcome this institution, but only in small doses. They advocate a limited government, constituted of courts and “night watchmen,” whose sole objectives are to safeguard bodies, to protect private property, and to enforce legitimate contracts.

Anarchists argue that minarchists’ minimal government is not quite “minimal” enough. Rejecting all government, anarchists argue that no human institution should monopolize enforceable dispute resolution in a particular geographical area.

Non-anarchists may wonder: in the absence of a single court system, how would disputes get resolved? Different anarchists have different ideas, but the gist is that conflicting parties (or their representative defense agencies) would agree to submit their cases to independent judges. This cooperative system, anarchists note positively, would keep disputes out of the hands of largely unaccountable, prejudiced judges.

Let us now turn to the matter at hand: war. Anarchists consider war the progeny of statism. Without states, anarchists figure, tyrants wouldn’t be able to conscript civilians into paying for and perpetrating large-scale attacks on foreigners.  Remembering the tremendous damage that adversarial governments caused during the Gulf War, for instance, anarchists declare defiantly, “This is the problem with government!”

Consistent minarchists have a different view. They remember the Gulf War and tell anarchists, “No, this is the problem with anarchy!”

Under domestic anarchy, minarchists find, a strong person can assault a weak person without any legal repercussions. Under international anarchy, minarchists again find, a strong country can assault a weak country without any legal repercussions. Viewing these types of anarchy as analogous (if not identical), minarchists consider the Gulf War an unfortunate consequence of international anarchy.

Among other disagreements, a resource dispute precipitated Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Iraq’s government furiously alleged that Kuwait was slant drilling into the Rumaila oil field. Had Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Kuwait’s Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah been neighbors in a small American town, Saddam would have needed to sue the Kuwaiti government in order to secure recompense. That is, Saddam would have needed (1) to prove Kuwait’s guilt and (2) to allow the court to determine a fitting punishment. As we know, though, Iraq and Kuwait were two distinct countries, not two households living under a common government. No global army had the wherewithal to force Iraqi leaders and Kuwaiti leaders to resolve their disputes in a global court. Thus, Iraq had free reign to achieve its own vision of justice by attacking Kuwait.

True, the invasion did not go unpunished. In 1991, the United States government expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait and retaliated against Iraq. But America’s was not the response of a genuine minarchist superpower. A real minarchist superpower would have (1) used the least amount of force necessary to quell the violence in Kuwait and (2) forced the alleged Iraqi criminals to stand trial for their crimes. A global minarchist government would not have destroyed Iraqi infrastructure, killed hundreds (perhaps thousands) of civilians, or bombed swarms of retreating Iraqi troops on the “Highway of Death” (all of which the Americans did).

The reality, then, is that the United States government—by attacking masses of foreigners without giving them fair trials—acted as a vigilante during the First Gulf War. Similarly, NATO members acted as vigilantes when they facilitated Libyan rebels’ ouster and assassination of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Russia acts as a vigilante when it buttresses the murderous Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Saudi Arabia acts as a vigilante when it kills Yemeni civilians in the process of fighting Houthis.

Clearly, the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and all other perpetrators of foreign intervention are not “objective” guarantors of world order. In our anarchic international system, they are self-appointed watchdogs that take matters into their own hands and literally get away with murder.

How should minarchists respond to this state of affairs? They ought to tell themselves: “In the absence of a limited global government, the countries of the world exist in a state of anarchy with each other, meaning that well-armed governments can assassinate foreigners with impunity. Therefore, minarchists and other peaceful people should try to keep the world’s 196 national governments away from each other’s throats. For if international wars continue, civilians will continue to get caught in the crossfire, and alleged ‘criminals’ will continue to get killed without trial.”

Some libertarians disagree. For his part, Richard Epstein argues that “we need Pax Americana in international affairs” in order to “snuff out a large number of troublemakers.” A libertarian American government, these interventionists argue, can and should confront criminals abroad in the same way it confronts criminals at home.

But if the United States really were to treat foreign criminals the way it treats domestic criminals, the United States would send actual police officers into foreign countries in order to arrest the alleged perpetrators. It would not maintain its current modus operandi of dropping bombs on foreign antagonists, accepting tremendous collateral damage, and demanding little accountability for the American agents who kill civilians.

With that being said, some minarchists might still believe that the United States’ interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, Syria, and Libya have helped more than harmed the cause of liberty. Fully evaluating the intricacies and failures of all these interventions will require separate essays. For now, though, we can observe that minarchist theory is hard to square with militaristic ideologies in today’s world. At the core of minarchism lies a respect for individual rights, including the right to life and the right to a fair trial. At the core of militarism lies an inadequate concern for civilians’ right to life and alleged criminals’ right to fair trials.

Thus, pending the (unlikely) creation of a global minarchist government, minarchists should join their anarchist friends in trying to limit the carnage that warring national governments produce in the international arena. Minarchists, anarchists, and other believers in individual rights do not always see eye to eye, but they should all recognize the dangers of war.

This piece originally appeared at libertarianinstitute.org.  

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