from where I sit

On Wikipedia, a quarrel over this sentence:

Most members of libertarian parties support low taxes and a balanced budget because they believe citizens should keep most of the money they earn, while logically consistent libertarians, including anarcho-capitalists, refuse all methods to subject people to tax.

The words logically consistent were inserted by Irgendwer (German for anywho), who objects to replacing them with radical or even other. While any taxation is obviously inconsistent with the letter of the nonaggression principle, I do not agree that the NAP is the only coherent foundation for libertarian policy; two proofs of the same theorem need not resemble each other. (See also.) I see nothing logically inconsistent in the minarchist opinion that an anarchic order cannot keep the burden of crime below that of crime-plus-tax in a well-conceived low-tax state, and thus that such a state minimizes coercion (which is undesirable even if not the fundamental sin). I’m an anarchist not because I believe such a state is logically impossible but because I believe it is practically impossible: to prevent such a state from mutating into a predator is a prohibitively difficult engineering problem, which does not lend itself to empirical tinkering.

Some libertarian writers worry too much about the deficiencies of either NAP or utilitarianism in extreme cases. In the absence of divine revelation, moral philosophy makes more sense as an empirical science than as an axiomatic one like mathematics (or theology!). It’s a bit incongruous to insist on individualism, whose moral force comes from our observable differences, and on an axiomatic approach, which must abstract away some of those differences.

An empirical science infers the axioms (laws of nature) from the “theorems” (phenomena), and tests them by attempting to derive the latter from the former. If the derivation fails, the scientist asks where was the flaw in my reasoning? and the engineer asks is this approximation good enough to work with until a better one comes along? As a citizen (by which I mean a member of a civilization) seeking to live a moral life, I am more engineer than scientist; I find the nonaggression principle both “close enough” and conveniently simple. And the Coase principle suggests that wherever nonaggression is not “close enough” the deficiency is not the end of the world.

Thus spake the insomniac, who hopes no one was overly bored by it.

5 thoughts on “from where I sit

  1. James

    I’m still making up my mind about your last two paragraphs. The content of empirical observation is descriptive and therefore inadequate to provide the basis for a normative theory in a standalone way. This is ok if we have some criterion for classifying real world outcomes as satisfying or not satisfying the “close enough to live by” standard. But that criterion would have to be a normative one, so it couldn’t be the product of experience.

    Then again, libertarianism is the only position that even bothers with moral foundations and winning by forfeit is still a kind of winning.

  2. Anton Post author

    I can start with the trivial norm “make me happy”. I can then observe that other people are more likely to contribute to my happiness if they are happy too; it doesn’t matter much, at this crude stage, whether that’s because happiness makes them more cooperative or because I’m wired as a social animal.

  3. James


    I appreciate your belated response.

    It’s not trivial to assume that “make me happy” is consistent with being moral.

    Now that I’m rereading, I should have called you on “It’s a bit incongruous to insist on individualism, whose moral force comes from our observable differences, and on an axiomatic approach, which must abstract away some of those differences.” This seems wrong. E.g. the force of arithmetic comes from the fact that each number has a unique identity, yet an axiomatic approach to arithmetic is entirely congruous with that.

  4. Anton Post author

    Morality itself is derived from the purpose of forming societies, which is to make each member happier.

    I don’t remember what I was thinking when I wrote the “incongruous” sentence. Perhaps I meant: We and our differences are complex enough that a list of axioms able to resolve all ethical questions would have to be so long and/or so fussily worded that it’s hard to distinguish it from a list of empirical precedents.

    (I need to read more Hayek.)


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