• Natural rights limits to property?

    by  • April 27, 2008 • The Global Picture • 30 Comments

    I think I stumbled on something today, in a discussion with Arto.

    Here’s the idea. The right to free speech has some natural limits – the classic statement of this being “shouting fire in a crowded theater” – a phrase with a very interesting history. Similarly, very few people think that the right to bear arms should include, say, personal nuclear weapons.

    So what if the right to property has a similar natural limit. Let me give an example, which I will call the Pleasure Yacht Attending The Titanic. (PYATT)

    Here is the scenario. A boat is sinking, and two survivors are clinging to a piece of wreckage. A boater comes by in their Pleasure Yacht and simply cruises by the people in the water, allowing them to drown.

    Clearly this is wrong – murderous behavior, or perhaps manslaughter. A crime.

    However, the rich person watching a famine unfolding in a foreign country is in exactly the same moral position. They have the personal means to prevent somebody else dying, and they choose to do nothing, and this is condoned.

    So here’s my thought: PYATT shows clearly that there are limits to the natural rights of property, specifically letting other people die when using your property could save their lives. Note that this is an entirely different foundation from the schemes which give rise to, say, taxation. The goal here is not to legitimize socialism – “taxation is theft.”

    However, to exactly the same degree that taxation is theft, allowing people to die of starvation while you have more money than you can spend in the bank is murder.

    There is a limit to the natural right to property.

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    30 Responses to Natural rights limits to property?

    1. April 27, 2008 at 11:11 pm

      As you will note in Wikipedia’s “shouting fire” article, from a libertarian view point this is not a case of legislating free speech but rather a case of the enforcement of a theater owner’s defined policy of conduct. If you wish to enter the theater, you will have to voluntarily accept some limitations (such as your cell phone being jammed) on your conduct while inside, in the same way as you suspend your expectation of not getting slapped around when you voluntarily enter a boxing ring.

      You say that “PYATT shows clearly that there are limits to the natural rights of property, specifically letting other people die when using your property could save their lives.”

      However, the question of letting people drown or not doesn’t presuppose or preclude anything regarding the ownership of the boat. If you swing by the Titanic in a vessel owned by your cousin, say, and let the two survivors drown, you’ll see that PYATT offers zero illumination on any questions of property ownership whatsoever.

      Now, as for the hypothetical wealthy person hearing about a distant famine… to what extent do you consider him responsible for the fates and fortunes of people he has never interacted with? If “allowing people to die of starvation while you have money” is murder, at which point do we become murderers?

      Looking in the dictionary I see that murder is defined as “the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another.”

      If our hypothetical wealthy person doesn’t hear about the famine until after it’s over (most everybody having died, say), is he guilty of murder through negligence?

      If he does send food aid, is he justified in keeping some of his hard-earned wealth for himself (so as to, say, create further wealth), or does he have to spend *all* his money to feed the hungry? If not, where and how is the line drawn? Should his government tax him at 100% minus living expenses and send the proceeds minus state expenses to foreign aid? Or should there be a cap to wealth accumulation so that any assets over, say, $1 million would be automatically confiscated for foreign aid? So maybe he doesn’t get to buy that pleasure yacht he was thinking about, but at least he gets a warm feeling inside of having helped people?

      If, say, each dollar feeds a hungry mouth for a day, does he commit multiple murders every time he buys a pack of ice cream?

      If he spends all his wealth in feeding half of all hungry mouths for a week, while the other half starves to death, is he responsible for the half that died? Is a family who lost their children to famine justified in accusing him of murder because his money went to feed the children of some other family?

      Once his money has run out in feeding hungry mouths for a week, and the famine claims those lives as well, is he culpable for their premature deaths by not having been smart enough to channel his money to foreign aid through another means that would have fed the hungry mouths for a month instead of a week?

      Or is he culpable for not having instead had the foresight to pay for research into methods for achieving more efficient yields that would not perhaps have saved a million people today, but over a billion tomorrow?

      Is he also culpable for not having provided money for housing (so the people won’t die of exposure to elements), sanitation (to prevent untold deaths from contaminated drinking water and woeful hygiene), medicine (the “natural right to live” includes surviving any disease for which treatment is available, I assume?)

      If he is, where does it stop? Once famines are dealt with, but all the other problems continue as usual, can he live at all for himself, or only for others? Is anyone who doesn’t accept this state of affairs committing murders all day long?

      If he can’t pay for all of food, housing, sanitation and medicine for the third world, which should he prioritize?

      As you are posing this matter in terms of negative utilitarianism, which is about preventing the greatest amount of suffering for the greatest number, wouldn’t the greatest suffering be prevented by simply killing off all of humanity in the quickest and most painless way possible – a notion our hypothetical wealthy man might well come to entertain after going mad with contemplating the best options for using his limited funds.

      By third-world standards we all are relatively wealthy – is each one of us a loathsome murderer by implication of not having sent all of our surplus to the Red Cross? Is it only the wealthy man who has to save the world, and not everybody?

    2. May 11, 2008 at 7:19 am

      For me, personally, I think it’s the moral duty of every living person to ensure that everybody has a place to live and enough food to eat, given that the tools to do this are possible. I think it’s an insufferable obscenity that the government monopoly on force is used to enforce starvation by preventing the poor simply coming and taking what they need to survive: in fact, by enforcing property rights in this way, people are being murdered, just as surely as they would be murdered by flying over their nations bombing them.

      However, there are many unobserved moral duties in this world.

      You’ve argued that the consequences of thinking about food as if it was a boat in the water, with people drowning people, is that the rich should feel compelled to act, and feel responsible if they do not.

      I think you think that this is reductio ad absurdum – the result is so strange that it cannot be true. But it’s not RAD – what we have here is non-euclidian geometry – an internally consistent model which suggests that if we account for the right to life as the cornerstone of a moral system, rather than the right to property, we see a different world, in much the same way that assuming that parallel lines eventually meet produces non-euclidian geometry.

      “The opposite of a trivial truth is false; the opposite of a great truth is also true.” – Niels Bohr

      I do not believe that anybody has the right to kill another by denying them food to eat. I believe that to do so is lethal violence, and an initiation of lethal force.

      On the other hand, I can see no moral argument that prevents the use of force to prevent somebody stealing a CD of pop music. The consequence to the person who is prevented from taking something is not deadly.

      I believe this is a perfectly workable axiom in a real political system, and that if the world largely obeyed this truth, there would still be immense abundance, capitalism would still run, people could be free, and nobody would starve. In fact, I think it goes a fair distance to preventing many of the worst possible outcomes of a libertarian system.

      I can’t make the system where enforcement of property rights resulting in a death isn’t initiation of force. The initiation of force is the decision to enforce the property right by violence, and the consequence is death. I don’t think you’ve argued against that logic, only argued that the consequence of that logic is that people as a whole would then be compelled to do something about poverty.

      I’m not seeing that as a problem. I think it is as crazy that people starve in a world with plenty of food as that they live in chains in a world that is filled with freedom.

    3. May 11, 2008 at 11:08 am

      You didn’t address any of my questions, the point of which were to demonstrate some of the absurd logical consequences of imposing arbitrary moral or legal responsibility on people who have not asked for it.

      (As I’ve said, I think you would benefit from reading Atlas Shrugged which deals with this theme quite explicitly and lucidly.)

      “You’ve argued that the consequences of thinking about food as if it was a boat in the water, with people drowning people, is that the rich should feel compelled to act, and feel responsible if they do not.”

      No, actually, that was not my point at all. Whether they feel compelled to act is their own business. I don’t think anybody has a claim on my life, nor do I think anybody has a claim on someone who happens to be rich. That would be a twisted morality indeed.

      And if, legally, such a claim existed, well, it wouldn’t be much worth my while to get rich, now would it? Of if I got rich, I had better hide the wealth, somehow, before the do-gooder looters of this world descended upon me to force me to waste it in some pet world-bettering effort of theirs. (Come to think of it, that’s what the rich already do… I wonder why?)

      All else being equal, it would be *nice* if people who have the resources (whether they be monetary or of some other kind) were to try to make the world a better place. But that’s as far as I’ll take it.

      It’s their own business whether people in affluent societies choose to waste their cognitive surplus on a trillion hours of TV a year, or to work hard and accumulate personal wealth. It’s equally their own choice to choose what to waste any accumulated wealth on.

      Who are you to try and impose your own moral values on anyone else? Any state that encoded this kind of hypocrisy of property rights into law would be a morally repugnant place to live for someone who believed in real individual liberty.

      Your stance on coerced wealth redistribution to the “starving man du jour” is not only incompatible with individual liberty and counterproductive to a productive economy, but, as any libertarian will argue, also plain unnecessary and unworkable. It is as fundamentally flawed with regards to the reality of human motivations as socialism is.

      The best way to raise overall living standards is to unshackle the engine of progress, not to chain it to the yoke of pet world-bettering efforts.

      Coercing people to hand over their wealth at the point of a gun does not contribute to wealth production. The only way your proposed “right to live” state could work at peak efficiency was if its every productive member shared your morals and was willing to work hard for utilitarian ideals instead of working hard out of self-interest. (Good luck with *that* – I think you’ll agree that socialism demonstrated just how compatible such motives are with human nature.)

      Arguing that it is not only somehow better, but an *obligation*, to feed a random man for a day is a catastrophe of judgment of inverse proportion to the extent that teaching that man to fish is the better answer.

      But, if you are going to persist with this view, please be consistent and take your ideas all the way to their appropriate conclusions.

      If a rich man is culpable for additional “moral obligations” (or punishments, really – after all, he becomes culpable simply by virtue of being more productive than the average bloke), then surely the lazy sod in front of the telly should be, too.

      The lazy sod is contributing to world hunger by being lazy and under-utilizing the vast untapped resources at his disposal. Shouldn’t he be culpable if he doesn’t get up, start a business, and get rich, so that he can fulfill his moral obligation to contribute his fair share to the non-starvation of the world?

      If he isn’t culpable, then your system is fundamentally unfair to wealth producers (which, of course, it is anyway), a state of affairs they will recognize and deeply resent.

    4. May 11, 2008 at 11:33 am

      Arto, this is what I mean by non-euclidian geometry. You think you’re making a case against what I’m talking about. To me, you’re not, you’re making a case for it.

      My proposal is simple: the decision to exercise property rights in a manner which leads to another person’s death is initiation of force.

      I don’t see any logical reason why you cannot run a Libertarian society with that axiom in place. In terms of the more general moral issues, yes, to a remarkable degree, I *do* feel the rich are morally responsible for all the people they choose not to help, and I do feel the smart should be working on affairs of significance, not on lining their own pockets.

      I’ve lived this way for about seven years, choosing to focus my primary efforts on helping people to help themselves, and if more people recognized that moral obligation, I think the massive problems of the poor would have never come to exist. It is generations of thinking that the poor are property of governments that has placed them in their current position in many cases. They have tasted little freedom.

      As I’ve said before, freedom is the goal for me, not property, and not trade. I do not believe that property or trade define freedom, and logical paradoxes like people selling themselves into slavery show the limits to property rights as a proxy for freedom, rather than the real and clear expression that people with freedom are free to manage their own property.

      The cart is property. The horse is freedom.

      One can be a rich slave, and many are. One can be a homeless beggar and be entirely free and many are, like the wiser of the wandering monks of India. Your suggestion is that the right to property trumps the right to life, and I simply don’t believe that.

      If a man can kill to defend his property, cannot he kill to defend his life? In that case, is murder to find bread a crime, any more than murder to defend life against another threat? If I can shoot a man for stealing my bicycle, why can’t I shoot him for exposing me to the risk of death by starvation.

      This is not a hypothetical. Mao starved about tens of millions people to death through reorganizing the collectively owned farming systems. Stalin did similar in the Ukranian famine.

      The difference between murder-by-starvation in the hands of the Great Dictators and murder-by-starvation in the hands of the free market is *none* from my point of view. Power is distributed through a libertarian system, but if the result is still that the poor starve and have no rights to take what they need to live, all that has changed is that oppression from above has been replaced by oppression from one’s peers.

      In the same way that democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for dinner, capitalism in western nations is two rich people and a starving person voting on how to define and defend property rights.

      My assertion is that the state support for property rights has to be examined extremely carefully to ensure that it does not constitute a subsidy to property owners, resulting in a state-sponsored concentration of wealth in the hands of a few by using the power of the state to defray the real costs of accumulating and storing wealth. A good example is criminal justice, where society at large is taxed to pay for defending property which is disproportionately concentrated in the hands of a few.

      At no point, and under no system, should it be legal for one person to cause another to starve to death, any more than it should be legal for one person to torture another or enslave another.

      There is a clash between the right to life and the right to property. There is another clash between the right to liberty and the right to property. These clashes cannot be resolved satisfactorily unless things like land ownership rights are more clearly defined, and edge cases like starvation are handled.

      Starvation is real. 3.5 million people starve to death each year.

    5. May 11, 2008 at 11:40 am

      In summary, I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this πŸ™‚

      But to put it into perspective from yet another view: your stance on this is equally distasteful to me as somebody enforcing their personal so-called “pro life” morals by abridging a woman’s right to control her own body.

      Your personal morals are just that: personal. Abridging anyone else’s individual liberty through coercion is fundamentally incompatible with libertarianism, and there is nothing you can do to make it compatible short of brainwashing everybody into the same morality – at which point the question becomes moot.

      So, I would say that it’s counterproductive to try and push your view on this onto others by encoding personally-felt “moral obligations” into law, and it would be much more productive to rather lead by example. Anything else sets a pretty damn bad precedent for the future of the state in question, plus, of course, removes any true libertarians out of the equation right at the start.

    6. May 11, 2008 at 11:49 am

      Hang on hang on…

      “Abridging anyone else’s individual liberty through coercion is fundamentally incompatible with libertarianism”

      I **absolutely** agree with this.

      However, consider this case. In a barren desert, or on the moon, 100 people have food, and one does not. Let us say their supplies were substandard at manufacture and passed inspection due to fraud, but those parties are far away now.

      In the libertarianism you suggest, there is no breaking of law or violating of rights for these 100 people to simply watch this person starve to death, and threaten to shoot him if he tries to take food from them.

      This could happen. They would not have done anything wrong. His **liberty** would not have been infringed.

      Don’t you see an issue here? Doesn’t a version of liberty which includes the edge case of being starved to death at gun point seem like a problem?

      Are you really suggesting that in this scenario, the starving person’s natural rights aren’t being interfered with by use of force from the people with the food?

    7. May 11, 2008 at 11:57 am

      (My previous reply was prior to your latest reply.)

      With regards to the non-Euclidean geometry: you can define your own universe all you want, but I think you will find incompatible with reality (i.e. human nature) and liberty, in exactly the same was as socialism. If you don’t see this, read Atlas Shrugged.

      Like Milton Friedman said, provided perfect people the best possible political philosophy is socialism. Provided our reality as it is, the best system free-market capitalism.

      You’re arguing political principles from your personal moral views – which is what we all do, of course, but the difference is that any true libertarian can get along with any other, because neither will *in any way* abridge the other’s personal sovereignty. To be a libertarian you only have to accept that one single axiom (to see how property rights etc are derived from individual liberty, read Nozack or the Friedmans).

      As soon as you start positing further fundamental coercive axioms, I think you are wrong to call yourself a libertarian any longer. You are somewhere in-between libertarianism and socialism. If you don’t recognize this, a productive discussion is not very fruitful.

      (Incidentally, I would be really interested to hear of examples of mass starvation occurring where a true free market reined. Milton Friedman and Ron Paul, have posited that no such event has ever occurred under freedom, but only under interventionist economies. They could be wrong, so it would probably be useful to research that. There’re not that many examples of true free markets in recent history, though.)

    8. May 11, 2008 at 12:02 pm

      (I again replied before your latest…)

      “Don’t you see an issue here? Doesn’t a version of liberty which includes the edge case of being starved to death at gun point seem like a problem?”

      This is actually sort of my key point. It’s ironic to me, actually, that you are off in theory. You are arguing from a personal view of reality, where the laws of the land, and human nature, too, must exactly match your personal morals. In reality, that’s not going to be very successful.

      For instance, in the scenario you outline, the hundred people who have food that they each themselves own (!) are, indeed and absolutely, in theory within their legal property rights to prevent the 101st person from stealing it. Whether they would do so in practice is entirely another matter, and whether their society would consider their actions morally justified, if they did, is yet another matter. (Also, the food would probably not be owned by themselves individually, but by the company who put all of them there, changing the scenario quite a bit.)

    9. May 11, 2008 at 12:10 pm

      Arto, I’m absolutely in favor of free market capitalism.

      As I’ve said many times

      “Free people make free markets, but free markets do not necessarily make free people.”

      Your assertion that the case of 100 people with food using arms to prevent one person eating is *not coercion* is what I’m pointing to as a serious problem in Libertarian philosophy. It’s a real “natural rights” issue – clearly the starving person’s right to life directly clashes with the rights to property of those around him, and yet you claim that their allowing him to starve is not coercive?

      Don’t you see an issue here?

      Believe me, I’m viciously anti-socialist and anti-communist. I am all for the rights of the individual.

      **ALL** of the rights of the individual, not simply property rights, however.

      From my perspective, if we don’t find better approaches to these edge cases, it’s going to be very, very difficult to get Libertarian microstates to *function.* You only need one unhandled edge case to crash a society in an extreme condition, where people ignore the rules of the game as written and go back to herd instinct or tribalism with disastrous results.

      What I’m suggesting is simple: killing another person by asserting your property rights in a way which leads to their demise is initiation of force.

      Nothing about this contravenes free market principles. In general, people are not in a position where they are dying for lack of other people’s property. Furthermore, note that I am explicitly *not* suggesting that the poor have a right to other people’s property – only that using force against individuals who are asserting their right to life – to *self defense against starvation* – is initiating violence.

      To me, this is an efficient way of handling an edge case. We both agree that in a properly capitalist society, starvation is incredibly unlikely. However, introducing capitalism at the bottom of the pyramid, where it is needed most, is going to expose it to a lot of edge cases like this.

      Human rights clash with each other. To me, politics is the art of getting the best out of that situation.

    10. May 11, 2008 at 12:41 pm

      Well, I’ll repeat my point: you are positing a “right”, and derived consequences, which you will not find anything like universal support for. I, for one, recognize no such right. To me, this is simply your personal moral. Perhaps some few libertarians may share your view on this, others (including myself) absolutely will not – but I’m sure you will have more luck among the socialists.

      From my point of view, you can’t have it both ways. Introducing special protection for an act of property rights violation is a serious “crack” in the system. I’ve already outlined some consequences for you; but I shouldn’t have to outline them, they should be obvious. Maybe you are identifying too much with the starving man and not enough with the wealth producer whose property rights are being abridged?

      Maybe if you consider it from the latter’s point of view you will see the problems with it. Indeed another irony for me is that your inherently dismissive view of the “rich man” (more accurately, the wealth producer) and his rights – to be stepped on when convenient to you – used to be my own innate view, as cultivated by growing up in one of the “best” welfare societies mankind has yet known; thankfully I was fully cured of that view by Rand’s opus, which is why I keep mentioning it. So I know where you’re coming from, and a decade ago I would have agreed with you; but no longer.

      As I’ve argued with you privately at length, this all is not even necessary: stealing *must* be defined as a crime regardless of circumstance, but the judge *should* be humane enough to consider alleviating circumstances when sentencing. There is no need for any loopholes – this is just business as usual.

      I will repeat myself yet again: there is nothing in libertarianism which *necessitates* your legalized-thievery-because-of-hunger scheme. Just set up the crimes and punishments correctly, and you’re done. Stealing because you’re (truly) starving is a minor crime, but it *is* a violation of property rights. Trying magick the offense away is double-think.

      I hope you realize that regardless of your personal views on the matter, if you try and make something like this into the law of the land, it will cut freedom as deeply as if you made abortion illegal. To run with this comparison: you can on your own time posit whatever theoretical rights you want for the fetus (“starving to be born”, let’s say), but those are your personal views and any libertarian state must always give primacy to the woman.

    11. May 11, 2008 at 12:58 pm

      Let me suggest what I think is a compelling solution to this problem.

      Here are the axioms.

      1> a right to life exists

      2> a right to property exists

      3> a right to use violence to defend one’s rights exist

      Now, let us consider some simple base cases.

      A> one person attacks another with lethal intent, and the victim retaliates with lethal force. no harm, no foul in almost all cultures.

      B> one person attacks another but is unarmed, and the victim shoots him. no harm, no foul in a libertarian culture, but will get you in trouble in Europe.

      C> one person hurls a cream pie at another, and the victim shoots him. clearly unreasonable, and likely criminal in most societies.

      What we have here is a continuum of reasonableness. At some point, most likely determined by case law in a judicial system, a line is crossed after which killing somebody in self defense is no longer legal.

      Now, let’s look at this from the perspective of the property rights case.

      A> one person steals from another with no assertion of need. clearly illegal.

      B> one person steals from another to survive. let us, for a moment, say this is also clearly illegal.

      One option is to handle this at a judicial level. “nearly-victimless crime” type stuff, or restorative justice.

      This is a case I’m not particularly interested in because it’s a fudge. It obscures the fundamental right to life vs. right to property arguments which are at the core of the Marxist critique of capitalism, and the common distrust of Libertarians.

      So let’s handle it a different way.

      A> Person one has property which person two requires to live. Person two attempts to take this property, and person one shoots them.

      Now in this instance, we have a very clear situation: a person has been killed by somebody who was defending their property. However, the person who has been killed has been killed attempting to defend their right to live.

      What we have here is a clash between the right to use violence to defend the property right, and the right to life.

      In short, what is being said here is that ownership confers the right to kill to defend the property.

      Owning something is a license to kill.

      Now, here’s my suggestion.

      In the same way that self-defense has a “continuum of reasonableness” from shooting people for throwing cream pies through to shooting people who come with knives, I’d suggest that use of violence to defend property also falls along a continuum of reasonableness.

      To kill somebody to defend property that the other person requires to live is an extremely unreasonable use of force. At some point is crosses a threshold and becomes criminal.

      Now, this does not cover the PYATT case where somebody simply ignores another person’s need to live and steers their boat away from people who are drowning. There’s a class of right-to-life infringements there also which I’m not going to try and untangle here.

      But in terms of the “license to kill” which comes with property, I think the notion that there is a reasonableness test like that of self defense is important.

      In terms of the somewhat spurious “right to life” argument, I think the question is more like “should it be legal to abandon a new born to stave to death?”

      If the answer is no, why not? Answer.. there’s some kind of natural right inherent in the child so that it’s not lawful to kill it. The basis for abortion is that the foetus is *not a person* and therefore does not have natural rights.

      If it isn’t legal to abandon a newborn to starve to death, why is it legal to shoot a starving person who needs the food from your fields to survive?

    12. May 11, 2008 at 1:15 pm

      I think this gets to the core of it. The disagreement is on the fundamental axioms. The ones you enumerate are not those of libertarians. Now, it may be a self-consistent system you are proposing, but it’s your own synthesis.

      The core axiom of libertarianism is individual sovereignty. Property rights, and other rights, are derived from that.

      No inherent “right to live”, such as you posit, actually exists in nature, so I’m not sure which tradition you draw on for it. As I’ve said numerous times before, I, for one, do not recognize this posited right of yours, so to keep talking about it as if I did is counterproductive

      It’s clear that with disagreement on the fundamental axioms, it’s hardly surprising that higher-level consensus cannot emerge.

      May I respectfully suggest that you call your system guptastaniamism to differentiate it from libertarianism πŸ™‚

    13. May 11, 2008 at 1:20 pm

      Arto, I think the Right To Life is well established in Libertarian thinking.



      The central tenet of libertarianism is the principle of liberty, namely individual liberty. To libertarians, an individual human being is sovereign over his/her body, extending to life, liberty and property.


      Some libertarians such as Robert Nozick and Murray Rothbard view the rights to life, liberty, and property as Natural Rights, i.e., worthy of protection as an end in themselves.


      I think this “right to life” is well understood as being foundational.

      The problem is the interaction between the right to life and the right to property, mediated by the right to use force in defense of those rights.

    14. May 11, 2008 at 1:31 pm

      Vinay, I’m well aware of that (I have Nozick’s book right here on the shelf), but the thing is that their “right to life” is fundamentally different than yours πŸ˜‰

      That is, a “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” means something else entirely than a “right to life at someone else’s expense”. Don’t even bother to make an argument that they are the same πŸ™‚

    15. May 11, 2008 at 1:37 pm

      Here’s another angle. Three rights

      A> right to life

      B> right to property

      C> right to kill to defend one’s rights

      Here’s how starvation worked under communism.

      1> starving people attempt to take the food they need to survive

      2> force is used to prevent them eating

      3> they die

      Here’s how starvation is working under capitalism.

      1> starving people attempt to take the food they need to survive

      2> force is used to prevent them eating

      3> they die

      There’s no difference.

      In the communist model, the food is owned by the State, and the State uses force to kill people. Stalin and Mao did this.

      In the capitalist / libertarian model, the food is owned by individuals, and individuals use force to defend their property, killing people.

      Either way, a man with a gun stands between people who are starving, and their food. The right to life of the poor is trumped by the right to property for the (comparatively) rich and this is the same in capitalism or communism, and many forms of libertarianism do not change it.

      What’s the solution?

      The question is *force.*

      The socialist solution is to take food at gunpoint from the rich and give it to the poor. This is no good, we all know this. Taxation is theft.

      On the other hand, choosing to enforce property rights in a way which caused people to die clearly looks (to me at least) like murder.

      I think there exists a legitimate compromise position where one can handle this edge case by saying it is illegal to initiate force against a person defending their life.

      If a person is starving, and they steal to eat, it is still stealing, but one is not permitted to use violence to stop them eating.

      This is a simple solution. It respects the right to life, the right to property, and it suggests that initiating force against people asserting their right to life is illegitimate.

      I don’t see a problem here in theory.

      As for whether this “right to life” is different from the right to life posited by others, I am not sure about that at all.

      As far as I can see, all I’m doing is making the system of property rights entirely consistent: a reasonableness test for self defense is a matter of practical fact in all cases, and a reasonableness test for initiation of force to defend property seems equally self-evident.

      The crux of this is about using the market to allocate responsibility.

      If one person owns all the food, and that person is the State, and they allow people to starve, that is murder.

      If 100 people own all the food, and they allow one person to starve, that is property?

      It seems to me that whether the right to use force to defend property, even up to the point where others starve to death is given to the State or to the Individual makes no difference.

      Death by starvation while food exists is death by violence.

    16. May 11, 2008 at 1:49 pm

      Vinay, you don’t need to elaborate. I *understand* your position, I just don’t *agree* with it πŸ™‚

      I will continue to maintain that you have your own definition of the “right to life”. In libertarian writings, this is used synonymously with “individual sovereignty” – the very abridgment of which is the consequence from your claimed “right to life at someone else’s expense”. (Good luck selling your position to those authors.)

      But, ultimately I’m not interested in arguments from authority, and will not try and make one. Rather, it’s simply a matter of essential liberty.

      It is indefensible to maintain that you have a right to sustain, improve, or prolong your life at another’s involuntary expense. You cannot legally demand (though you might be able to morally expect) even a trivial and minimal sacrifice from another in order to prolong your life. You simply have no legal right to do so in a libertarian state, this harking back to the very definition of individual liberty.

      So, I think it’s time for us to just agree to disagree πŸ™‚ …though I would be glad to revisit the issue after you’ve had a chance to read Atlas Shrugged.

    17. May 11, 2008 at 1:58 pm

      And that, right there, is really the key to making this consistent in a libertarian society.

      If we define the choice to enforce property rights at the expense of another person’s life as the initiation of force, then you have a system where you have a genuinely libertarian society without the possibility of market-based starvation enforced by individual property rights collectivized by the market.

      “If these people come to take this food, shoot them” is *legitimate* if the people are not in danger of starvation. No problem there, no change.

      What would change is the edge case.

      “if these people who will otherwise die come to take this food, shoot them” becomes illegitimate use of force.

      What is the distinction? In the first instance, they are infringing your right to property and you can gun them down.

      In the second instance, your decision to initiate force to defend your property was infringing their right to life, and what you do is criminal because your action violates their right to life.

      It’s simple: the issue is not whether or not the food is being stolen. It is being stolen. The question is “is it legal to kill to prevent it being stolen.”

      A person who is doing what they need to do to survive is not initiating force: they are defending themselves from a threat to their life. The problem here is that in this situation, the person who is harmed (stolen from) by their self-defense is not the person who is responsible for their survival-critical situation.

      And this is the natural rights clash: why should another person’s bad luck or poor judgement turn into my loss?

      The answer is that it doesn’t turn into your loss: the person who steals from you is still responsible for having stolen from you. It’s just that, if their life is on the line, you’re responsible for whatever you do to them because they are not choosing to initiate force. If they do not initiate force they will die so this is a self-defense situation.

      If we define “self defense” to be the use of force in a situation in which you will die if you do use force, taking food to live becomes self defense. Using force to prevent another person mounting an effective self-defense is clearly criminal.

      So one cannot stop the starving from eating by force, but after the fact what they did remains theft, and they can be prosecuted.

      To me, this looks *entirely* coherent with basic libertarian principles, and what’s more it accords well with natural rights as I understand them.

      People cannot use force against you in a way which infringes your right to life. Where’s the problem in that?

    18. May 11, 2008 at 2:03 pm

      In terms of implementation, I believe the case can be made as follows.

      1> People claiming a “right to life” defense basically hoist a white flag stating that they believe their life is in danger and they will not initiate force. If they do attempt violence, the white flag can be safely ignored – shoot the bastards.

      2> Anybody who uses force to prevent this person doing what they feel they need to do to survive is answerable in court for their actions as if they had interfered with another person’s self defense.

      3> The person operating under a white flag is answerable for their actions in court at a later date if crimes are committed in the course of their “right to life” defense.

      The closest analog I have seen is the Clameur de Haro, which is an absolutely bizarre but rather appealing bit of feudal nonsense from the Channel Islands.


    19. May 11, 2008 at 2:13 pm

      As I’ve said before, it’s not “self-defense” by any existing meaning of the word. You might term it “self-preservation”, however.

      I’m glad that you’re softening your stance a bit. Accepting that the act *is* stealing is a critical first step, and I will hold you to it from now. The next step is understanding that there is no need for a legal loophole.

      Even if a perfectly healthy person (or a person whose exact physical state you cannot immediately ad-hoc determine) steals from you, killing them is unwarranted if there is another option available that will merely disable their attempt and stop short of lethal force.

      So, you could term killing “use of excessive force” if you wanted to, and it would be especially so against a weak starving person who could barely crawl let alone walk. (Whereas an invader armed with a submachinegun might warrant some straighter shooting.) There is no need for a loophole infringing essential liberty and property rights. As I’ve said now several times over – this is business as usual. Set up the justice system correctly, and you achieve your scenario goals without killing libertarianism.

      (By the way, as an aside, I suppose your “starving man” position applies equally to a wounded/ill man without money, who breaks into a pharmacy or hospital to steal drugs or health supplies that he needs to survive the next few hours? If it does apply, where do you stop – we can probably come up with more examples? And if it doesn’t apply, why not?)

    20. May 11, 2008 at 2:23 pm

      I don’t think that asserting that the right to life trumps the right to property is a loophole *at all.*

      I think, rather, that it’s insisting on a firm and consistent basis in all three natural rights.

      As for sick people stealing medicines… well, yes, frankly, I think that intelligently dealing with cases where one person’s right to property costs another person their life is the barrier to entry for Libertarianism to be a serious contender for the Next Big Thing again πŸ™‚

      I’m not going to start a country where the poor can be shot for stealing food, or where a diabetic in a financial crisis can be legitimately allowed to die and not have somebody held responsible. I would be making myself responsible for what happened to the people in that situation to some small degree, and I’m not willing to do that.

      There have to be answers beyond “property rules all.”

    21. May 11, 2008 at 2:23 pm

      PS: if killing in self defense is still murder, then stealing in self preservation is still stealing. Reasonable?

    22. May 11, 2008 at 2:39 pm

      Well, you’re off onto your own three axioms again; I shan’t follow, as it’s not really territory that I would call home πŸ™‚

      “where a diabetic in a financial crisis can be legitimately allowed to die and not have somebody held responsible.”

      You can come up with as many theoretical examples as you want. The problem is that these arguments are rather like the Christian fundamentalist claiming that without heavenly-inspired law, people would be free to rape, murder and pillage.

      The law is one thing (and should be free of loopholes), and the reality of human altruism is something else. There is a critical difference between “must” and “ought to”.

      “PS: if killing in self defense is still murder, then stealing in self preservation is still stealing. Reasonable?”

      Killing in self-defense is not murder, it’s manslaughter (see the definition of ‘murder’ in my first reply). Stealing in self-preservation is, of course, still stealing.

    23. May 11, 2008 at 2:42 pm

      If killing gets two words based on context, I think that stealing should get two words as well. Crime against life and crime against property are not that different, are they?

      And, thank you very much for sticking to your guns on this one, Arto. I wouldn’t be learning nearly so much about what I believe without somebody capable and willing to put in the time to articulate and maintain their perspective.


    24. May 11, 2008 at 3:17 pm

      Hmm, yes, murder and manslaughter are fundamentally different, as the former involves calculated premeditation. That distinction may be worth transferring over to labels for stealing, that is, “stealing for self-benefit” and “stealing out of desperation”. That’s pretty much what I had in mind, though, with regards to the judge’s sentencing in view of the alleviating circumstances. As always, it comes down to semantics.

      BTW, my perspective on natural rights is very much captured in the following article:


      That is, no such rights exist a priori, but we can self-select into a system of rights of our devising. (Not unlike one’s choice of fundamental axioms for understanding reality, that is, the single required leap of faith for the existence of an objective, scientific universe, versus e.g. a subjective one in another tradition.)

      That is, we can be sure of very few things, but among them are: we think, we exist, and we are free; our existence we will lose at an arbitrary time due to factors largely out of our control, but our freedom is lost only if we choose to lose it (sometimes at the cost of our existence).

      This is why individual freedom as *the* one and only fundamental axiom of political philosophy works for me. To quote from the above article:

      “I prefer this freedom, which seems to me simple and clear: we are all at a table together, deciding which rules to adopt, free from any vague constraints, half-remembered myths, anonymous patriarchal texts and murky concepts of nature. If I propose something you do not like, tell me why it is not practical, or harms somebody, or is counter to some other useful rule; but don’t tell me it offends the universe.”

    25. May 11, 2008 at 3:27 pm

      Hm. Well… hm… I dunno, I think that freedom in itself is far from self-evident. I have a feeling that the concept that people should be able to do what they like without consequences, rather than being the property of the nearest authority figure, actually took a lot of time and labor to become clear to people.

      If freedom can be discovered, what else is out there?

    26. May 11, 2008 at 3:43 pm

      Yet another disagreement on fundamental axioms – no wonder we can’t find common ground πŸ˜‰

      Freedom is not all that problematic, though. It follows from (per the title of one of Friedman’s books) being free to choose one’s action at each moment. That freedom doesn’t imply in any way that the external world will cooperate with you, however. The universe is indifferent and the world is unjust, but you are still free to choose.

      As the natural rights article I pointed to, above, says, a defense of “I had no choice. It was him or me.” is always a lie, as there is always a choice. It’s just that sometimes the choice is deeply unpleasant.

      This is a key take-away from, for instance, Atlas Shrugged: you are free to choose even should you find yourself at the point of a gun. Sometimes, in choosing life you will have chosen less freedom; and sometimes in choosing freedom, you know that you will lose your life.

      It’s still a choice, and it’s still yours. No one can take the *choice* away from you, hence no one can take your freedom away from you – only you yourself can allow your freedom to be curtailed or eroded, whether implicitly or explicitly.

      This, to me, is the very basis of libertarianism, and is much more justifiable than the concept of an arbitrary list of natural rights which, in actuality, can’t even find actual basis in nature.

      From this essential freedom, other rights can be derived into a self-selected system. Libertarianism thus proceeds to derive property rights as a key ingredient. There may exist many such self-consistent systems, though – again, it’s down to our own choice.

    27. May 11, 2008 at 3:56 pm

      Hm. Hm….

      Ok, well, hm. Choice is a very complex and problematic thing. For example, many women (to a far greater degree than is commonly acknowledged) feel their choices are intensely constrained by the opinions of their social network. For all humans, the reluctance to die strongly informs how choices are made. I’m not at all sure that choice or freedom are in any way inherent, particularly given how constrained people seem to have felt throughout history.

      Neither choice nor self-preservation are absolute values from my perspective. Choice can be taken away entirely if the ability to act is taken away (the bound prisoner) and self-preservation can be overcome for any number of reasons.

      There are extensive philosophical arguments which have convinced me that within the human domain, only awareness is fundamental. Everything else seems to be conditional on external circumstances.

    28. May 11, 2008 at 4:08 pm

      “For example, many women (to a far greater degree than is commonly acknowledged) feel their choices are intensely constrained by the opinions of their social network.”

      No doubt this is true. However, remaining in that oppressive society is still a choice, no matter how you put it. Other options always exist.

      My choices at the point of a gun are also considerably constrained by unpleasant external circumstances, but they are still mine to make.

      “I’m not at all sure that choice or freedom are in any way inherent, particularly given how constrained people seem to have felt throughout history.”

      And wouldn’t that go splendidly hand in hand with your earlier statement that the concept of liberty, of being free to choose, is a late development πŸ˜‰

      Hence, for most history (though prehistory may be a different matter) the vast masses of people have simply been, to various degrees, unaware of their essential liberty, with only the occasional candle in the dark flaming up at times.

      Believing yourself to be a mere cog in the wheel of divine creation, unable to make meaningful decisions because your fate is momentarily influenced and ultimately pre-determined by the deities and other external forces ruling all creation? The rise of rationality did away with all that claptrap.

      “Choice can be taken away entirely if the ability to act is taken away (the bound prisoner)”

      Yep, that might be the only workable objection to the question of choice. It would have to be a straightjacket, though – otherwise suicide might be a very rational choice indeed.

    29. May 11, 2008 at 4:18 pm

      The Naths never believed they were cogs. They always believed they were the hub πŸ™‚

    30. May 11, 2008 at 4:37 pm

      Yep, one would need to lack both self-respect and ambition to be a mere cog. Who wants to be a cog? Might as well jump off the roof and be done with it πŸ˜‰

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