Anti-Libertarian Ethics

The free-market libertarian ethic rests, as Murray Rothbard put it, "on the primordial fact of self-ownership by every man, and on the fact that each man may only live and prosper as he exercises his natural freedom of choice…" When violations of this ethic occur, how do the violators justify them? In what ways do their rationalizations conflict with "self-ownership by every man"? If we are to counter these claims, answers to these questions become important.

I identify and discuss four recurring themes in anti-libertarian or anti-self-ownership ethics. They are (1) denial that those aggressed upon are men or human beings, (2) denial that men have 100% self-ownership, (3) an argument that those aggressed upon have consented to the aggression, and (4) an argument that self-defense justifies the aggression.

Men are subhuman

The Nazis claimed that many groups of men were subhuman (Untermenschen), and that this gave them the right to exterminate or enslave them. American slavery by law treated the slaves as "not to be ranked among sentient beings, but among things, as an article of property," placing slaves at the level of brute animals. Recently in the Congo, killers identified as "Ugandan and Rwandan-backed rebels" have been intent on exterminating the Bambuti pygmies as "subhuman" or as "beggars and thieves."

In all of these cases and others like them, A asserts that B is not a human being. It follows that the right to self-ownership does not apply to B, and A may do what he will with B. I am interested here in those cases where "B" is a group of people, not an individual on his or her deathbed, or being kept alive by a third party, or a person with a living will, etc. These cases and their complications lie beyond the scope of this article

Applied to masses of mankind, the claim that a group of people contains no human beings is prima facie false and utterly preposterous. Any group of people from size two on up shows ample evidence of the human natures of its members self-evidently by the independent and diverse nature of the lives of the people in the group. If they have superiorities or infirmities or differences from the norm, if they have beliefs or views that differ from the norm, if they have practices that delight or offend, if they look or act in delightful or crude ways, all the more do those differences indicate that they are human, for such variety of life and condition is precisely what results from people having their own lives.

No one can justify claims that whole groups of people are subhuman on any reasonable grounds. There are no exceptions. Name any group you wish. None are subhuman: Intellectuals, illiterates, the strong, the weak, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Indians, the aged and infirm, the psychotic and delusional, gypsies, tramps and bums, alcoholics, those with disabilities of any kind, the sick, the poor and helpless, the tall, the short, the fat, the skinny, the light-skinned, the dark-skinned, those who take drugs, terrorists, prostitutes, homosexuals, Communists, Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Armenians, Sudanese, Palestinians and Israelis, the rich, the poor, etc. One can list an enormous number of sets of people by various characteristics, groups that at one time or another have been or will be targeted, thought of, or acted upon as being subhuman. People may be many things, honest or criminals, saints or louts, lovable or jerks, but they are not subhumans.

An important moral implication of the libertarian ethic is that no group of people of any description can rightfully be thought of as subhuman. Libertarians should first and foremost always stand in defense of such an attack on targeted groups. A common sense understanding of human nature and human society also suggests that aggressions against groups are illegitimate aggressions, that is, not based squarely on self-defense or the rectification of a violation of the non-aggression axiom. This is because it is extremely difficult to see how whole groups can be held culpable for aggressions when there are usually particular instigating parties directly responsible.

The de facto treatment of a group of people as subhuman is equally outrageous. This is why mass bombing and killing of civilians under any circumstances is unjust by the libertarian ethic. In opposition to the "subhuman" argument, it is accurate to say that the aggressors are acting in an inhuman way, one that is totally inconsistent with the fulfillment of man's nature.

Because the subhuman argument is so indefensible as a justification for killing and/or ruling others, even though it has proven persuasive enough to engage masses of people in killing and maiming one another or persuasive enough to function as a smokescreen, those who want to exercise power over others and justify it have come up with alternative nicer-sounding arguments.

Men are inferior human beings

To have 100% self-ownership is to run one's own life without outside interference. That means to have complete control over all of one's choices and decisions. When A interferes with B coercively, another anti-libertarian rationale is that A is making B better off because B has an inferior grasp of what is good for him. This means that A regards B as an inferior human being. Since 100% self-ownership applies to men (human beings), A rationalizes aggression by the idea that B is less than fully a human being or has less than full self-ownership rights.

This is analogous to a parent raising a child, or to the idea that "I know what's good for you." The phrase "nanny state" is perfectly apt in this case. This boils down to A saying that he is not wronging B when he rules B or that he is not infringing on B's life even when it's patently clear that A is.

However, large numbers of people do not support countless laws that they are forced to live with. They are aware that most laws do nothing but make them worse off in hundreds of often invisible ways. Is a childless taxpayer made a better person by being forced to contribute to the education of other people's children at a public school? Am I bettered by contributing to the building of an atomic arsenal or a moon rocket? Is anyone except accountants benefitted by the incredibly byzantine regulations of 401(k) and other such plans? Is any part of an automobile manufactured in the U.S. subject to free market forces, or is the tiniest detail determined by agencies like the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration which determines in the minutest detail standards for windshield defrosters and how they are tested? Is it even possible to assess whether NASA's programs make us better off when the GAO tells us of NASA's "inability to collect, maintain, and report the full cost of its programs and projects." The number of such questions is indefinitely large.

Unfortunately, large numbers of citizens have gotten used to, accept, and support the idea that the State can order the most intimate details of their lives for them, which is to say that they accept the assumption that they are incompetent at running their own lives. Others have confused ideas. They view themselves as not inferior and yet accept regulation of their lives because they see so many other people as inferior that the State's actions are justified "for their own good." Still others accept some restrictions as a price to pay to get some law passed that they favor.

Although I have not checked, I'd hypothesize that every State on earth justifies its coercive actions by some language or idea that the State is acting to make B better off. For example, the South Dakota Constitution says that "We, the people of South Dakota, …, in order to form a more perfect and independent government, establish justice, insure tranquillity, …" The central statement is that a "more perfect" government will be created by adopting the Constitution, which is to say that betterment will occur as a consequence and that the existing condition of self-government or territorial government is to be improved by the State government. Since the State of South Dakota is the ruler, the implicit assumption is that the inhabitants of this territorial area will be better off if the State interferes with them and rules them. A look at the proposed EU Constitution reveals a wealth of such sentiments.

In all events, this justification for State aggression on individuals is totally absurd and just as groundless as saying that B is subhuman. One reason is similar to that given earlier. It cannot possibly be supposed that the large numbers of individuals being affected by these laws possess a mass inferiority that makes them both incapable of pursuing what they deem to be in their best interests and incapable of fending for themselves through means and organizations of their own. For that is the improbable assumption upon which is based the idea that the State must impose its own decisions upon the inhabitants under its jurisdiction. Any random sample of people beyond a quite small size, 20 or so, will quickly come to represent the entire population in terms of any characteristic that one might think of as possibly making someone inferior. When the size rises to the millions that are routinely covered by laws, it is ridiculous even to suggest that they can be inferior en masse since they are what mankind is! Only a small clique of power-laden officials who can, for reasons that need not detain us now, get elected and re-elected no matter what idiocy they spout or perpetrate, can believe themselves as possessed of a superior wisdom to legislate for hundreds of millions.

But wherein is the inferiority supposed to reside in a large population? Apparently, the population, despite its enormous inventiveness and productivity that place it far above any prior group in history, is unable to handle such basic tasks as feeding itself, educating itself, providing for old age, and providing for medical care. It cannot look out for its own safety and requires detailed regulation of every item in sight. It cannot take care of its children unless the State certifies its babysitters. It cannot buy, carry or handle a firearm without being subject to minute meddling. It cannot handle hundreds of hazardous substances without being told precisely how to do it. It cannot hire or fire an employee without a room full of instruction. We are apparently dealing with a mass inferiority without parallel in history that requires the largest interference in American history. For some reason, the necessity for this has grown greatly just over the past 50 years. We have to thank Providence for providing us with a group of extraordinarily wise public servants who know precisely what is good for us in every exigency of life and are coming to our aid.

I have also elsewhere argued that the State can't know what is good for its subjects as well as they themselves know. This occurs for several reasons. The subjects possess far more of the dispersed and specialized knowledge that is critical to their own decisions about their own lives. This knowledge changes constantly and State officials are in no position to keep up with it. The incentives of State officials to act on behalf of their subjects are vastly inferior to those that the subjects have.

Finally, individuals are in the best position to realize what they do not know and to devise ways to remedy their deficiencies.

Really, instead of the idea that their subjects are inferior judges of their own lives, the truth is the opposite: The State is a meddlesome inferior judge of its subjects' lives.

Consent of the ruled

Consent of the ruled is a third anti-libertarian means of justifying that B is not being wronged by some apparent infringement on B's life. In today's world of constitutional democracies, many rulers assert that they have B's permission or consent to rule B. This is a bald-faced lie in every government from the most dictatorial down to the most democratic. How do we know? Ordinarily, it will be found that no right to secession is allowed or countenanced by States. But how can there exist consent without such a right? If a person does not consent to rule by a State, the way to say "No, I do not consent" is to withdraw from the State. If this is forbidden, then one cannot say "no," in this manner at least. More generally, the right to secede is clearly part and parcel of a right to live one's own life. For a State to deny a right to secede is to argue that the human being has permanently alienated a portion of his right to life.

There are those anti-libertarians who argue that by not moving out of the country, a person has consented to its laws, even if secession is disallowed. "Leave, if you don't like it." Do Americans willingly trade self-ownership for comfort or other values? Do they consent to repression by not moving elsewhere? Do they consent by not throwing the tea into Boston harbor? Anti-libertarians say, yes, this is what the majority of the people want. There is an implicit contract in which liberty is given up in exchange for other things. This view is wrong for a basic reason. It ignores the costs of leaving one's country. If allowed, secession is the lowest cost method to withdraw from the State and not leave one's country. If that method is forbidden by the State or made so costly via war that it is not feasible, then another alternative is to pull up roots. However, this is a very costly method. People love their country – their area, their people, their culture, their place. To move is a wrenching experience, requiring a new language, new customs, a new job, etc. Why should one have to move anyway? This heavy cost deters most people from leaving. If these heavy costs exceed the losses suffered under the State, they remain. There are a number of other arguments that I do not go into against the notion that the ruled consent to their being ruled. Lysander Spooner provides many.


A fourth justification for A scrapping B's right to self-ownership is an assertion by A that B is a threat to A's life. In other words, B's life and actions are said to be so counter to A's that they are harming A, or may imminently harm A. This boils down to A saying that he is acting in self-defense against B. For example, the U.S. government accused the Iraqi government of threatening the U.S. and looks upon North Korea and Iran as threatening countries.

In all too many instances in which States justify attacks as self-defense, the justifications turn out to be phony or trumped up cases. Particularly troublesome are the cases in which a State intentionally invites an attack, or creates a provocative action, or backs the opponent into a corner by some ultimatum or massing of forces or other ruse. These pretenses at self-defense provide a cover for offensive actions. Just as troublesome are those cases in which a big powerful State engineers a revolution or virtual takeover of a smaller weak State. These justifications are usually flimsy pretenses for using power for the sake of territorial rule (empire), or for imperialistic gains of an economic nature.

There are existing legal rules, not necessarily libertarian in nature, dealing with self-defense both at the individual and international levels. The rules that govern States are much looser than those that govern individuals. Given the fact that States do far more damage than individuals and routinely massively destroy the people and property of other States, it seems clear that much stricter rules should govern States as long as they are the predominant political form we have to live under. I do not mean rules imposed by yet another authority like a world government since that goes in the wrong direction. I mean rules that private groups invoke and devise that have a moral impact on world opinion and act to constrain States indirectly. Watchdog groups, investigative reporters, the blogging network, courts and trials held in absentia, and many other similar actions are libertarian methods of pointing the finger at improper State actions.

I mention one more case because of its importance in American history and the history of other countries. Suppose that State A rules its citizens B, and State C claims that it has a right to attack State A in order to free the subjects B. This is what the U.S. has claimed in Iraq, and what Hitler repeatedly claimed as his armies marched into the Rhineland, the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. Russia in the 18th century regarded itself as the protector of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire. We could call this the Bloody Good Samaritan case, although the Bush Administration calls it freeing the Iraqis from tyrannical rule. This rationale is an offshoot of the self-defense idea, in that State C takes it on itself to defend B's rights against State A. Hence, it also can be called the policeman-of-the-world or liberator-of-the-world idea.

Obviously, this rationale is subject to great mischief. State C can't easily pinpoint the rulers of State A and ends up killing many of the citizens B that it supposedly is liberating. This is similar to how the FBI liberated David Koresh's followers. More importantly, the right of self-defense derived from the non-aggression axiom lies in the hands of those being aggressed upon, that is, citizens B. Choosing the time, place, manner and extent of their own liberation is part of their right to their lives. One proper means (among others) to achieve liberation of oppressed groups is individual and group help to the suppressed on a voluntary basis that is acceptable to the oppressed.

To summarize, I pointed out four anti-libertarian justifications that violators of self-ownership use to cover their actions. They are that the violated party is subhuman, inferior, consenting, or a threat so that self-defense is justified. All of these arguments can be understood and interpreted in terms of the basic libertarian axiom, which suggests its far reach. I also presented a number of counter-arguments to these faulty rationales.

In a sense, the fact that we encounter rationales for anti-libertarian acts is a good thing. It might suggest that human beings implicitly accept a base-line view that each person has a right to his own life, even though it is apparent that we do not live up to that view. When people do not live up to that ideal, perhaps they feel a need to explain why intrusions on rights are justified or perhaps they feel that others wish to hear such a view. This too suggests that the libertarian self-ownership axiom is something widely understood and/or felt by many people, including many non-libertarians.

July 26, 2005