Property or Zwolinski

by Andy Curzon

In response to this article on

Prima facie, through his criticisms Zwolinski seems to be nitpicking with the intention of justifying aggression under certain broad circumstances by using specific, narrow, examples under the misunderstood assumption that the NAP as a legal underpinning is some sort of panacea, rather than a moral proscription based on the axiom of self-ownership.

When he writes

What is the proper libertarian stance on minimum wage laws? Aggression, and therefore wrong. What about anti-discrimination laws? Aggression, and therefore wrong. Public schools? Same answer. Public roads? Same answer

Zwolinski is overlooking the underlying axiomatic moral argument of self-ownership and its extension to property owned.  The reason the NAP must logically be rooted in property is because of the natural, physical nature of the scarce resources within the world where only an individual may move his body how he wishes (paralysis aside).

Given acceptance of self-ownership (the alternative being that our bodies are owned by the State) paired with the concept that laws only emanate from the people they correspond to, it seems to make little sense to try and justify aggression over physical persons such that enjoyment of their property is infringed upon.

Again this is not a panacea.  There will be case by case examples where third party arbitrators will be agreed-upon by individuals on both sides and brought in to mediate the dispute in question, just as there are backlogs of State court cases for such things as ‘IP’ disputes. There are many angles from which the current system does not run as smoothly or consistently as a polity whose laws are solely based on the NAP.  (It may be worth noting at this point that by ‘solely based on the NAP’ I am not precluding additional bye-laws between individual polities but these must be agreed-upon by all property owners explicitly in contract in order to be consistent and viable.)

The monopoly State is one large centralized behemoth with a relatively high price tag which is not subject to competition, made more conspicuous by the fact that it is largely not subject to the profit incentive.  A germane and essential economic proposition here is that profit is wealth creation.  If I buy five pounds worth of equipment and sell the result for more than five pounds (in real terms) I have created wealth. The same is the case for all goods and services.

It is important not to lose sight of the moral underpinnings of the NAP – ownership of oneself leading to private property and control (ownership) of scarce physical resources.  In other words, people being free to exercise themselves as they see fit as long as they do not stop other people enjoying their own property is a matter of morals based on the axiomatic nature of one’s control over one’s body.  Adhering to having laws based on subjective morals (moral relativism) can be very pernicious and confusing in practice since two men’s values are rarely identical.  To turn it around somewhat Socratically, what moral justification is there for one man’s values to be imposed leading to control of another man’s property where no prior aggression or threat of aggression is present?  Clearly, minimum wage laws force employers to pay a fee that they may not otherwise have paid (or lead them not to employ that person), just as anti-discrimination laws force employers to pay a certain person over one that they otherwise would not have picked and I see the only answer to this presented by collectivists and socialists to be that based on claims of utilitarianism.

Pausing here to remember the NAP as a legal justification working consistently (a key facet of a law is to remain consistent to uphold equality under the law) only when all land is private seems a central strand of thought at this juncture because the private-public dichotomy itself is a misnomer, or better yet, a falsity predicated on immoral justification of ‘public aggression’.  Having realized this, one may find it challenging not to view the institution of the monopoly State as a mafia paid for by extortion – because it receives its ‘power’, or ‘rights’, without explicit consent from those it threatens with sanction.  And how can one morally delegate a right to property that one does not own without an explicit and mutually agreed-upon contract?  As we all know, if this extortion was done by anyone else ‘privately’ most people would see this as contravening objective morals, but the erroneous legitimacy of the public-private bifurcation is rife, and as such people think in a ‘public’ domain certain things are acceptable that would certainly not be in private.  In practical terms, this is simply a special pass for monopoly State employees, deriving its power over people without them having offered it expressly.

Going back to Zwolinski’s above quote, public schools and public roads are not attended to with pure profit (wealth creation) motives, and more fundamentally than that they are not subject to competition.  So it is the only market in the land in which the price is set by the producer, the monopoly State.  Prices for State actions are the only set of prices where one cannot choose whether or not to buy the product or service; in any other market a price is ultimately set by the consumer (I can put the price of my product to any level but in a market it is not that price – the active price – until a consumer actually pays that amount), but somehow people have been convinced that if one specific institution is unilaterally allowed to force people to charge a price, or pay a certain fee either for action or inaction, this is somehow ‘for the greater good for the greater number’.

And here lies the crux of the matter.  Physical boundaries at least have the potential to be observed accurately as one never has to measure a foregone loss through time when doing so.  In other words, basing law on the self-ownership axiom leading to the consent axiom – a proscription of the Silver Rule – is consistent (although not fraught with small issues to be dealt with on a case by case basis like any system of law) whereas utilitarian notions of what is best for the abstraction of ‘society’ are predicated on an unknowable, immeasurable assumption that ‘x’ is better for everyone than ‘y’ by the standards of the current politician attempting to justify the immoral force of the monopoly State.

It may be of some use at this stage when pitting the two constructions against each other – that of monopoly State edict by layered majority vs the NAP as a legal prohibition on physical aggression or threat of physical aggression – to cogitate what is practically going on in both cases.  On the one hand, there is a group of people, elected by the majority within a polity, who build arguments to express forcing people to use their property how the politician says because it is for the best of this elusive (abstraction) ‘society’, and they themselves cost money to employ that has never been explicitly agreed to having been paid by all individuals who pay them (objectively immoral).  On the other hand, everyone is free to pay for whatever service of property protection they individually have decided is worth more than the money paid for that service.  I see this comparison as pretty clear-cut and the onus of justification to lie with the proponent of the former choice of two legal constructions – those acceding to an objectively aggressive position of power without consent.

Not only are there objectively sound reasons why consent seems an apposite yardstick for consideration of any prohibition involving possible infringement of property, but there is a floodgates issue girding the problems of curtailment in forcing people to transfer property, especially over a longer period of time.  In other words, the limits of the application of the NAP have specific physical boundaries (although threats may seem to be apart from this they still have to refer to a misrepresentation of future infringement of objectively identifiable private property to be contravening the NAP) and are immanently constrictive, whereas the democratic utilitarian justification is at the mercy of the expansive whim of the individual politician’s subjective, ordinal values.

Under the current edifice of seemingly ever-expanding dirigisme, the syntality of the polity – if such a thing is present in the actions of the majority – is to be laid down in law with threat of aggressive force if that behaviour is not adhered to.   What Zwolinkski may not be aware of is that in a Libertarian polity the very same bi-laws could be constructed through contract if everyone within that polity who owned property was to explicitly agree.   Of course the point here being both that in the majority of cases not everyone would wish to sign their rights away so freely, – regarding intelligent options such as wearing a seat belt as being their personal responsibility – and more pertinently that under this model, the tyranny of the majority would be one based on suasion with threat of being ostracized, rather than law with threat of aggression.

In comparing monopoly State rule and an NAP-based legal system, consider that the monopoly State employees have a large incentive to win votes by actively creating disputes through special-interest pleading based on the culturally Marxist, and economically unsound, dogma of exploitation and egalitarianism, which is of course, costing people money to pay for an expansive service they have not individually agreed to.  This is in stark contrast to the counterpart predicated on the consent of everyone individually which is designed to allow for the maximum choice and the most personal responsibility.  The decentralized NAP-based system is vastly less expensive to run and does not cost any individual a penny they did not ask to pay, whereas in the monopoly-based system politicians are being paid to take responsibility away from the individuals who have not explicitly agreed to have their choices made for them.

Thus the ‘Hobbesian Myth’ (the implicit contract made by individuals to their State) is exposed, notwithstanding the possibility that there could be such a group of people wanting to live by freedom from self-responsibility.  As stated, if such a group of individuals wanted to band together and sign away their rights explicitly as bi-laws within a given area of private property this certainly seems viable, although from many angles inauspicious.

Looking at this quote from Zwolinkski

It is, of course, common sense to think that aggression is a bad thing. But it is far from common sense to think that its badness is absolute, such that the wrongness of aggression always trumps any other possible consideration of justice or political morality

one may notice a few interesting pearls of deception.  I will not dwell on the author’s cute attempt to belittle common sense and subtly justify aggression other than to distinguish between his dovetailed misrepresentations of Libertarian theory through use of woolly language.  Libertarians do not say that aggression should be illegal because it is subjectively ‘bad’ to each and every individual (as it is certainly not ‘bad’ to the aggressor), but that it is immoral based on the objective standard of self-ownership.  So it is not the ‘badness’ that is absolute (as of course one could always express ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as subjective without describing what the concept is good or bad for), but the physical infringement (or threat to such) that is unequivocally aggressive.

Just because the NAP is primarily relevant as a legal proscription on action, it does not mean behaviour deemed ‘bad’ by some that does not lead to infringement of private property will not lead to the perpetrator being ostracized.  In fact I would imagine a polity devoid of laws forcing social norms to be more discriminatory and more aware of reputation as one of the measures of whether to engage or so business with a particular individual.  In addition to this, Libertarians, within the ambit of the application of the NAP, would label the word ‘political’ in the phrase ‘political morality’ either as a pleonasm, or an attempt to justify moral relativism.  Any ‘externalities’ present in such cases as that of pollution may adequately be dealt with by explicit and mutually agreed-upon contracts without the phantasmagorical creation of the abstraction of the ‘political’ or group – usually the monopoly State employees – as an identifiable object subject to its own special morality.

As an addendum, in consideration of the enormous expense of a centralized system based on taxes, relating to notions of ‘positive [or negative] externalities’, one may also see that between the two systems of government, ceteris paribus, in the NAP-based system people would have a lot more property to decide to control as they saw fit.  In some cases this could mean more investment (potential future wealth that otherwise would have been spent paying politicians to redistribute wealth), in other cases it would mean consumption (subjective satisfaction) and in a third case it could mean a decision to give more to a charitable cause of the property owner’s choosing.  It seems to me plausible that in a polity with law based objectively on the consent axiom grounded in self-ownership, as compared with a system such as we have now, there is a strong argument to suggest there will be much more charity and it will likely be more direct and cheap, and therefore efficacious.  However, to remain accurate and honest, this particular ‘charity argument’ is simply conjecture based on the same false claim to be able to measure a foregone loss as politicians espouse in their utilitarian justification of force without prior infringement on private property and as such I mention only as an afterthought.

When mulling over all the levels of argument for and against private property as backed by law (the NAP), the paramount importance of difference between what is objectively identifiable as opposed to what is subjectively preferable to the individual, must at all times be kept at the forefront of one’s consideration in order to see the immorality of the aforementioned principles underlying Zwolinski’s rather surreptitious attempt to justify ‘public’ aggression.

2 thoughts on “Property or Zwolinski

  1. Matt Zwolinski and others are doing their best to undermine self-ownership and self-responsibility for the obvious reason that without it the state would have no moral justification.

    So he is a statist and not a libertarian.

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