In Defence of the Bright Line – Aggression and Harm in the Digital Age
By Duncan Whitmore
In a recent discussion concerning the regulation of so-called “Big Tech”, Jeff Deist has raised the question of whether the proliferation of digital technology requires us to reconsider the traditional, libertarian conception of unlawfulness:
The larger question for libertarians is whether their existing conceptions of property rights, harms, torts, and free speech still work in a thoroughly digital era. Principles may not change, but facts and circumstances certainly do. Rothbard’s strict paradigm for what ought to constitute actionable force, especially as discussed in part II of The Ethics of Liberty, requires some kind of physical invasion of person or property. In doing so, Rothbard necessarily distinguishes between aggression (legally actionable) and the broader idea of “harm.” The former gives rise to tort liability in Rothbardian/libertarian law; the latter is part of the vicissitudes of life and must be endured. Theorists like Professor Walter Block and Stephan Kinsella have expanded on this “physical invasion” rule, applying it to everything from blackmail to defamation to (so-called) intellectual property. Aggression against physical persons or property creates a legally actionable claim, mere harm does not.
But Rothbard’s bright-line rule seems unsatisfying in our digital age. If anything, the complexity of modern information technology and the pace of innovation make the case against bright-line tests. For one thing, the sheer scale of instantaneous information ought to inform our view of aggression vs. harm. A single (false) tweet stating “famous person X is a pedophile” could reach hundreds of millions of people in a day, ruining X’s life forever. This is a bit worse than a punch to X’s nose in a bar fight, to put it mildly.
To avoid taking these remarks out of context, it should be noted that the main purpose of Deist’s article is to reject the option of a “sclerotic federal bureaucracy” resolving problems created by digital technology, in favour of evolutionary regulation arising from the adjudication of real cases. As such, one suspects that Deist is thinking out loud so as to raise possible issues rather than constructing a carefully considered argument regarding the scope of actionable harm. Nevertheless, he does reach an unqualified conclusion:
Libertarians and conservatives should broaden their conceptions of tort and contract remedies, and support the evolution of what constitutes harm in a digital era.
Given such certainty, a detailed examination of the matters that Deist raises is warranted.
George Tracey, 23, MA PPE and Austrian Economics student at the Cevro Institute and recipient of the Mises UK scholarship.
What does CEVRO offer that most masters courses do not? CEVRO’s small class sizes completely change the nature of study in such a fundamental way. They allow students the scope to debate and develop our own ideas that wouldn’t be possible in a larger institution. One of my favourite ways to learn, which CEVRO manages to embody frequently in its teaching, is a much more Socratic approach to study. We use lecture time to debate and discuss our understanding and insights on various papers with world leading academics to help steer the conversation and share their knowledge as well. At CEVRO learning is an active pursuit, not passive absorption of PowerPoints.
Does CEVRO’s size and youth as an institution affect how you learn? Absolutely, CEVRO treats its students as adults, with the privileges and obligations that come with that. Professor Šíma encourages us to take on as much as we can and is always willing to make things work for students that ask (this semester I am auditing 4 classes beyond my original 5). I have already mentioned how the small class sizes affect the teaching, but they also of course affect student-lecturer dynamics. CEVRO has a great tradition of continuing the debate after class, where students and lecturers get together and drink fine Czech beer. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been possible so far this year due to COVID restrictions. One of CEVRO’s greatest strengths is its connection with other institutions on a global scale, Professor Šíma introduced me to the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER) after a discussion we had, and since I have applied to go there as a Junior Research Fellow this fall. The personal connections you make with the members of CEVRO really helps to enable this individually focussed development and advice from fellow students and lecturers.
How has your study been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic? I think the most obvious thing that you miss out on is living and studying in Prague. I was there for 6 weeks before I had to return to the UK in November 2020, it is an amazing city (and the beer is unimaginably cheap) and it has been a real shame having to study online from the UK instead of in the Czech Republic. Naturally, the move to online learning had some teething problems, not least getting used to tracking two different time zones to live in UK time and study in Czech time. The end of my undergraduate degree was also taught online due to COVID but the problem I found with traditional lectures online is that the passive nature of watching them lead to me getting distracted and losing focus easily. Luckily most of CEVRO’s lectures are much more interactive and discursive and this helps negate some of the drawbacks of online learning.
Can you say a little bit more about what topics you’ve studied? CEVRO’s MA syllabus really is diverse, as any good PPE course ought to be. Naturally, there is a compulsory course on Economics in the first semester to make sure everyone is on the same level. Due to our diverse academic history this was really helpful- I myself studied Philosophy as an undergraduate and despite being familiar with economic principles, I benefited greatly from a more solid grounding. Most of our topics are quite difficult to clearly delineate into any specific school, for example one of my favourite modules so far has been ‘Law and Economics of Property Rights’ taught by Dr. Katerina Zajc (Ljubljana, Slovenia) and Dr. Boudewijn Boukaert (Ghent, Belgium). This topic really pushed home the interplay between legal systems and economics, but also history and political philosophy (for example having a common law or civil law tradition). Another Brilliant module I’m currently studying is ‘Advanced topics in Austrian Price Theory’ taught by Mateusz Machaj (Assistant Professor at Wroclaw, Poland), in it we delve into a specific issue within Austrian Price Theory (as the name suggests), I’ve especially enjoyed the discussions about whether market socialism can address the calculation and knowledge problems Mises and Hayek posed against socialism almost a century ago.
Most importantly, would you recommend CEVRO to a friend? I would definitely recommend CEVRO’s MA in PPE to anyone who has an interest in the overlap between the disciplines. The interplay between politics, philosophy and economics truly is fascinating, and CEVRO’s approach to economics isn’t just the dry mainstream of econometrics or statistics a layman assumes when he hears economics. CEVRO teaches the much richer world of mainline economics, this tradition heralds from Adam Smith, and takes economics proper as the study of how we interact with and within the world and so includes institutions like laws and religions within their scope of economics. Some of my most interesting lectures have been discussions about how self-governance systems in prisons changes from ‘convict’s code’ to prison gangs as the population in a prison increases and reputation tracking of individuals becomes unfeasible. Cevro has opened my eyes to how much of the world can be understood through an economic lens, properly focussed, and it’s an experience I recommend to anyone. There are of course drawbacks to CEVRO, like with everything. One example is dealing with the Nostification process which is required by Czech law to check the validity of your previous studies, the hassle has been exasperated by the COVID restrictions. In my opinion however, it is an inconvenience well worth putting up with.
There are nine kinds of “lockdown” measures against the COVID-19 virus, which have been implemented in many countries of the world. They are: school closures, workplace closures, public events cancellation, restrictions on gatherings, public transport closures, stay-at-home restrictions, national travel restrictions, international travel restrictions and face covering mandates. What the chart shows is an average of an average. It is the average, over the nine measures, of the proportion of days over the course of the COVID epidemic since January 2020, that there has been in place a full restriction. And the chart shows this average for 14 countries in Western Europe, including the UK.
By a full restriction, I mean: all schools closed, all “non-essential” workplaces closed, all public events cancelled, gatherings restricted to 10 people or less, public transport closed, forced stay at home with only minimal exceptions, mandatory restrictions in place on internal travel, border closure, or face covering required at all times when outside the home. These are the restrictions which the Blavatnik School of Government, based at Oxford University, regard as constituting 100% lockdown in their respective spheres. And who am I to disagree with them – since I’m choosing to use their data?
Look at those Irish go! Or not, of course. An average of almost three out of nine fundamental freedoms totally denied them, over the course of more than a year? And the UK isn’t much less bad.
How to Fight for Liberty, Part Three – Inspiration and Motivation
By Duncan Whitmore
“From all these indignities, such as the very beasts of the field would not endure, you can deliver yourselves if you try, not by taking action, but merely by willing to be free. Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces.”
– Étienne de la Boétie1
In this third part of our continuing series on how to fight for liberty, we will build on our conclusion in Part Two that liberty depends primarily on people being motivated to reduce systematised forms of physical enforcement (i.e. the state), and to turn instead towards systematised forms of voluntary co-operation. Our task here is to try and orient ourselves onto this factor as the focus of a political strategy.
One of the questions that any advocate of a free society is asked time and time again is “how can a free society work?” What the enquirer wishes to know is, absent the state, which institutions will guarantee law and order, how will they be sustained, and how will we know that they will succeed? Often implicit, of course, is the presumption that a free society is a hopelessly impossible experiment doomed to failure – a presumption that is usually deemed to be confirmed if, no matter how good his argument otherwise, the libertarian is unable to furnish a satisfactory answer to a just a single part of this enquiry.
I’ve been looking, for a few weeks now, for hard evidence that the COVID vaccines being rolled out in various countries are having an effect, or not as the case may be. I think there is probably enough data now to do at least a preliminary assessment. So, here goes.
The data I used for this report, both from Our World in Data and the Blavatnik School of Government, was taken on April 1st, and ran up to March 31st.
How to Fight for Liberty, Part Two – The Nature of the Battle
By Duncan Whitmore
In Part One of this continuing series on how to fight for liberty, we explained the relationship between libertarian theory on the one hand and political action on the other. We determined that our endeavour as theoreticians is to build an intellectual movement which defines and justifies liberty as political principle, a movement which should then be used to inform a variety of (often imperfect) liberating political movements as they appear around the world.
Our next step is to build on this foundation by gaining a firmer grasp of precisely why it is that liberty is infringed and, as a consequence, to understand better the nature of the battles that we face. Many of the intricacies of this understanding we have explored in some previous essays, and so, to avoid excessive repetition, some of the below will be a necessarily truncated explanation, reserving elaboration for some fresher thoughts. Readers who are interested in some more detailed explanation on the basics can follow the links in the text below. Continue reading →
The recent resurgence of the dollar price of Bitcoin in tandem with a steady decline in that of gold presents us with an opportune moment to assess the quality of cryptocurrencies (CCs) as a potential monetary medium of the future. The question becomes all the more pressing once we remember that the current order of state induced inflationary finance is likely approaching its end, a prime factor in governments seeking to assert greater degrees of control over their populations.
Although this essay will mainly be sceptical of CCs as a monetary medium, we should remember that the primary concern of libertarians is with unshackling monetary control from the state, and, thus, in promoting the freedom of money. This means that the most suitable monetary medium should emerge from voluntary trading in the marketplace, in much the same way as language emerged as a result of individual people trying to communicate. Precisely which commodity/ies will be selected as a result of this process is of secondary importance. There is, therefore, no need for libertarians qua libertarians to be particularly fixated upon, for instance, either gold or the gold standard, as many are wont to do. While gold would be far superior to state fiat money, it is not without disadvantages for the consumer. In particular, the relatively high value of very small quantities of gold makes it less suitable for day-to-day transactions compared to, say, silver or copper. In fact, this circumstance meant that the shift, during the nineteenth century, to the predominance of gold as the monetary medium at the expense of other metals necessitated a much wider use of money substitutes (e.g. bank notes) and the consolidation of the metal itself in bank vaults, well out of the public’s hands. This paved the way to the complete severance of the substitutes from the gold that backed them, leaving us with the 100%, state controlled paper standard from which we suffer today.1 Circumventing this state control is the priority. If this is achieved by CCs rather than by gold or by any other precious metal then no crypto-sceptic libertarian should cut off his nose to spite his face merely because his personally preferred alternative to state fiat money has failed to gain preference. Continue reading →