Throughout the conflict I was serene… Libertarians are awful people

@AdamBrereton sent me this link.

The link discusses a thought experiment:

There are ten people on an island.  Adam Abel, with one day’s hard work, can produce enough to feed all ten people on the island.  Eight of the islanders, with the same hard day’s work, can only produce enough to feed one person.  Hapless Harry, on the other hand, can’t produce any food at all.

1. Do the islanders have a right to tax Adam’s surplus supply in order to support Harry?

2. Suppose Adam only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day.  Do the bottom nine have a right to force Abel to work more to support Harry?

3. Do the nine have a right to tax Adam’s surplus to raise everyone‘s standard of living above subsistence?

4. Suppose Adam only produces enough food to support himself, and relaxes the rest of the day.  Do the nine have a right to force Adam to work more to raiseeveryone‘s standard of living above subsistence?

Quite a few libertarian bloggers have lost their nut over the above.  The arguments come down to the differences between the various libertarian branches, with the extremes being:

1. OMG the only right is the property right a person has over themselves.  Adam Abel would totally be a slave if the others taxed his surplus.

2. Something, something, something, Dark Side.

Often, it’s the way we construct a question which forces our hand when answering.  The above thought experiment, out of necessity, blurs and simplifies a lot of issues in order to get to the core point: taxation is just like slavery.

But, more importantly, it also frames the questions in terms of rights.  The islanders aren’t moral, cultured people; they’re little bags of rights.  Does Adam Abel have a property right?  Are his rights being respected by the guy who just wants to live?  Does the guy who wants to live have any rights worth mentioning?  &c. &c.

The thought experiment shows why it’s important to reject the rights-dialogue.  It fosters the idea of the individual as being in constant threat of other individuals.  Even the Harm Principle — you have rights up to the point that they interfere with somebody else’s rights — is built on this assumption of the negative impacts of interaction.

If we replace the rights-dialogue with virtue ethics, we get a very different outcome.  What should the islanders do if they are all trying to be excellent people?  Beefing it up to a virtue politics: what should the islanders do together if they are trying to be an excellent society?  Adam accepts his obligations to the others because he would not prefer to live in a society where his laziness results in the death of somebody else.  The islanders come to the arrangement that everybody produces food (except Harry).  They put the surplus into storage so they can reward the entire community with holidays.

Seriously, libertarians, hunter-gatherer societies worked this shit out thousands of years ago.  Wake up.

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Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

6 thoughts on “Throughout the conflict I was serene… Libertarians are awful people”

  1. “Adam accepts his obligations to the others because he would prefer to live in a society where his desire to be lazy results in the death of somebody else.”

    On close reading, this sentence delivers its meaning with difficulty. May need some editing.

    In all else I thank you for the pointers.

  2. I think someone interested in defending rights-dialogue could very easily respond by just denying the silly libertarian premises. If libertarians embraced almost any other ethical position, the problem would dissolve. Personally, I think talking about rights obscures the proper nature of moral obligations, so I prefer to talk about duties and positive conceptions of autonomy and so on. I find the virtue ethics arguments kind of uninteresting, honestly.

  3. What a derp filled hypothetical. Everyone knows what’s going to actually happen if it’s 9 vs. 1.

    We don’t like in some ‘300’ inspired fantasy land. Hobbs FTW.

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