Colby Cosh on Libertarianism and Its Very Few Implications: Secession, Abortion, Immigration

I. Introduction

On October 6, 2014 Colby Cosh wrote an op ed column for Canada’s Maclean’s magazine entitled “The strange fiction of Hadrian’s wall.” This is a strange title for an essay in which this author announces, first, he is a libertarian (“I came to a libertarian ideology quite early in life and have never abandoned it”), and second, this philosophy has very few if any implications for resolving important public policy challenges (“…. the issues you can resolve by simple appeal to a libertarian ideology are the low-hanging fruit of the political universe. Libertarianism helps you see that things like dairy supply management or Internet content policing are shocking absurdities. But does it settle issues like abortion, or immigration, or tort reform or voting criteria? Not on its own.”).

II. Secession[amazon asin=1933550171&template=*lrc ad (right)]

To wit, and mainly, Cosh denies that libertarianism has anything to say about the optimal size of countries in general, and, in particular, nothing about whether or not Scotland should have seceded from Great Britain. Not so, not so. For the anarcho-capitalist libertarian, the ideal size of each nation is one; that is, if there are seven billion people on the planet, there should be exactly that number of political jurisdictions, one to a customer. We should each have our own country. We should all of us be sovereign over ourselves. Moving away from strict libertarianism to minarchism or limited government libertarianism, there are still implications as to nation size (see Block, 2013); we should all be organized into countries roughly the size of city states. Every country should be about as big as Vatican City (population: 770), Monaco (32,000), Nauru (13,000), Tuvalu (12,000), San Marino (29,000), Liechtenstein – 34,000, Marshall Islands (58,000), Saint Kitts and Nevis (39,000), Seychelles (81,000), Maldives (340,000), Malta (400,000), Grenada (90,000), Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (117,000), Barbados  (280,000), Antigua and Barbuda (69,000), Andorra  (70,000) and Palau (20,000). Well maybe the Maldives and Malta are a bit too heavily populated (this list ranks countries by size, not population), but you get the general idea.

Certainly, Hong Kong and Singapore could be added to this category of actual or potential small nations, as well as the following, if they succeed in departing from the jurisdictions of which they are now part: Wales, Ireland, Quebec, Catalonia, the Basques, Gaza, Palestine, Kurdistan, and, certainly, Scotland, Cosh to the contrary notwithstanding. There are movements afoot, too, for the secession of Texas, Vermont and New Hampshire from the United States, and these, too, should be applauded by all libertarians of good will. And this goes, also, for the secession of the 13 colonies from Great Britain in 1776, and for the South from the North in 1861. There is talk [amazon asin=1908089377&template=*lrc ad (right)]amongst beltway types of “libertarians” to the effect that secessionists must favor slavery; this is a bit difficult to understand, given this myriad of secessionist candidates. In any case, the first state to contemplate secession from the union was Massachusetts in 1825. Supported by abolitionists, they wanted to depart from America because it supported slavery; thus theirs was a movement in opposition to the “curious institution.”

What are Cosh’s reasons for opposing these modest proposals, particularly with regard to the subject of his essay, Scottish secession? Some of these are “quite personal, even prejudicial.” These stem from the fact that about one-third of his ancestors were English and an equal proportion from Scotland. I suppose his opposition to Scottish secession stems from the familiar desire of kids not to see their parents divorce, but this is hardly the thought of a libertarian.  He does, however, also offer a more principled objection: “… there is a level of state size below which libertarian principles cannot be practiced. A state must have the means of collective self-defense…” But is he seriously saying that an independent Scotland could not defend itself? This is hard to see, given that list of teeny, tiny nations mentioned above, that are all viable, going concerns. If it came to a fight, God forbid, between the new country Scotland (population 5.3 million) against any of these small nations, or even all of them put together, it is a no brainer to even guess for a second who would prevail.

III. Abortion

According to libertarian Cosh, secession is not the only issue upon which this philosophy has little or nothing to offer. There is also abortion. And, here, he has something of a point. After all, the two most eminent libertarians of the last few decades have been Ron Paul who is strongly pro-life, and Murray N. Rothbard, who is a staunch advocate of the pro-choice position. However, just because[amazon asin=1610166310&template=*lrc ad (right)] leading libertarians disagree does not mean that this philosophy has no relevance for the issue. After all, top-flight physicists diverge on string versus wave or particle theory. That hardly proves physics can say nothing about this dispute. Economists are forever disagreeing with each other, without in the slightest calling into question the power of the dismal science to settle the controversies that divide them.

In my view, the correct libertarian view on the abortion challenge is evictionism. I have not yet been able to convince more than a smattering of followers of this philosophy that this is the one and only correct view, but that does not mean that this answer is not “complete and automatic;” that it does not follow, ineluctably, from basic principles of the freedom philosophy.

This perspective is based, as all good libertarian analyses should be, on private property rights. The essence of this point of view is that it is only the pregnant woman who is completely and totally the proper owner of her womb. Baring (host mother) contracts to the contrary, it is she and only she who may properly determine what, or who, may reside in or on her property (I resist notions to place scare quote marks around the previous word). In my view, the unwanted fetus is a human being from day one; the fertilized egg stage. Neither the sperm or the egg alone has the power to develop into a mature human being.  But, if this very young person is unwanted, he is a trespasser and may be evicted from this property– in the gentlest manner possible, compatible with upholding property rights. At one fell swoop evictionism, if implemented, would save all babies in the third trimester from partial birth abortion, since they are all viable outside the mother’s womb. And, as technology improves, pre-birth human beings will be protected at earlier and earlier stages, until they all are safeguarded. But, this is true only under evictionism. At present, the forces of life are losing the battle, at least in the U.S. Evictionism can turn this tide.[amazon asin=B005P1ZFB8&template=*lrc ad (right)]

For more on this see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, , here, here, here, and here.

IV. Immigration

Another issue on the basis of which there is supposedly no libertarian perspective is immigration. And, here, again, Cosh has a reasonably sounding contribution to make since highly credentialed libertarians have come out on both sides of this issue. This is even a case where Murray N. Rothbard, in his mature years, changed his mind. He first advocated completely open borders, but later took the opposite position, along with one of his leading followers, Han Hermann Hoppe. For my own free immigration analysis, see here, here, here, here, here and here.

What are the issues? Hoppe offers this perfectly valid insight. There are three things that cross national boundaries: goods, investment and people (immigrants). In the first two cases, there are two consenting partners who engage in these enterprises. For the movement of goods (or services) there is an importer and an exporter. Both explicitly agree to the commercial arrangement, otherwise it would not take place. There is no case of invasion, or trespass here, since there is mutual agreement. It is the same with investment. The donor and the recipient of the investment funds must both sign a contract, stipulating the conditions of the contract; for how long is it to last, who is to receive what share of the proceeds, etc. But in the third case, matters are very different. The immigrant shows up at the host country without anyone’s by-your-leave. There is an invitation from noone in the recipient nation. Hoppe’s conclusion? Such [amazon asin=193355004X&template=*lrc ad (right)]immigration amounts to trespass, a violation of libertarian rights.

In contrast, the open borders position, at least my version of it, maintains that there are vast tracts of open land that has never been homesteaded (in Alaska, the Rocky Mountains). A similar analysis applies to government-owned property (roads, bodies of water, Bureau of Land Management holdings, etc.) Therefore a person from a foreign country settling in any of these places violates no libertarian rights. By the way, the classical open borders position never contemplated allowing immigrants into the country who were criminals or had communicable diseases. Typically, all immigrants were subjected to a period of time in quarantine, in isolation if need be (such as in the case of Ebola), to determine if they were sick.

V. Punishment theory

Cosh also asserts that libertarian theory can shed no light on the question of “whether murderers ought to be hanged.” Again, he is superficially correct: there is no one, single, unanimous voice on this question within the libertarian community. You ask a question of ten libertarians, and you are sometimes likely to receive eleven or more different responses. However, there is indeed an important libertarian literature on capital punishment, and Cosh writes as if it does not exist. But this Maclean’s columnist is on target on one matter; no libertarian theory can distinguish between hanging and shooting and the guillotine and be-heading and chemical injection, and other types of capital punishment. Yes, our theory is not as precise as that. However, with a little bit of logic, and a little bit of libertarian theory, we can establish the case for the generic death penalty for murderers.

For what has a murderer done? He has in effect stolen the life of his victim. Suppose, work with me here, there were a machine in which[amazon asin=0990463109&template=*lrc ad (right)] we could place the dead victim and the live murderer. Then, we pull the switch on the machine, and out pops an enlivened victim, and a newly dead murderer. In effect this machine transferred the life out of the murderer and into his victim. Would we be entitled to force the murderer into this machine, and transfer his life into the corpse of his victim (we ignore the possibility of killing an innocent person, and also abstract from the question of whether the mistake-making government is capable of making such determinations)? Of course we would. For, when a thief steals a car, justice requires, at the very least, that the robber be compelled to return this vehicle to its proper owner. Libertarian punishment theory is far more draconian than that, but it is hard to dispute the claim that at the very least the carjacker when caught must be forced to compensate the victim, if not with his own automobile – say it has been ruined by the criminal – but with something of equal value owned by the perpetrator.

In the event, although we may well have such a machine in 5000 years from now, if we don’t all blow ourselves up before that time, we do not have one now. However, with the aid of this thought experiment, we have demonstrated, at least, that the murderers life is forfeit. To whom does it now belong? To the state? Perish the thought. It costs the government prison more than a year’s tuition at a prestigious university to incarcerate the criminal, and this is paid for by the victim’s heirs through taxation. No, the murderer’s life should be forfeited to these very heirs of the victim, let us say his parents. In turn they may execute the victim, and charge a fee for witnessing this act of justice if they wish. Or, they may condemn him to a life of servitude, at a profit (there is a certain institution used in the past that compelled hard labor from innocent people and made money from doing so; I dare not mention it, lest the New York Times assert I favor this mode of action for innocent people.)

VI. Conclusion

There are vast areas of jurisprudence where libertarianism cannot provide a definitive answer. What should be the age of consent? How serious must an utterance be, before it is considered a condemnable threat? How much pollution counts as a trespass? For these continuum problems, we need (hopefully private) courts, and “reasonable men.” So Colby Cosh is correct to some extent. But he goes too far, and dismisses the power of libertarian theory to shed light on many, many issues that confront society.