The Non-Aggression Principle Part 1/3 – What It Is and What It Isn’t

The non-aggression principle (NAP) is the cornerstone of libertarianism. Roughly speaking, the NAP states that it is illicit to initiate violence against person or property. In this post, I will argue that the NAP should be understood as a legal principle rather than as a general moral principle. The second part of this series will contend that the NAP should be seen as a conclusion, rather than an axiom, and in the last part I will defend the NAP from libertarian critics.

One of the standard objections to the non-aggression-principle goes something like this: Suppose you’re a single parent in a libertarian society. You’ve been fired from your job because you stayed home to take care of your sick child. Between being unemployed and having high medical bills, you’ve consumed all your savings and you can no longer afford food or medicine for your child. This being a libertarian society, there is no social safety net and we further assume that in this scenario, you also don’t have any family or friends willing to help you and there aren’t any charitable organisations or individuals ready to lend a hand. Seeing no other option to keep your child’s life, you steal some money from a very rich person to buy food and medicince. Subsequently, your child gets better, you find a new job, and eventually save enough money that you are able to anonymously return the money you stole, plus interest.

You have clearly violated the NAP by infringing on an innocent person’s property rights, but have you acted immorally? I would say no. I think that under such circumstances, theft is indeed morally justifiable. Framing the NAP as a general and absolute moral principle would run counter to this very strong moral intuition. If we instead conceive of it as a legal principle, this problem disappears.

It’s perfectly reasonable for the legal system to punish theft even in cases where the thief had very good reasons for stealing. After all, what is the alternative? If we allow needy people to steal, every thief who is caught will claim to be in need. It would mean that you couldn’t ever trust poor people because they might steal from you with impunity. Creating exceptions for cases like the scenario described above would create far more problems than it solves.

Libertarianism is a political philosophy, i.e. a philosophy about the proper use of violence in society. As such it is appropriate that a founding principle like the NAP does not concern itself with morality in general but merely with how the legal system should work. The NAP should be seen as a legal principle alongside other principles such as the presumption of innocence, the right to due process, and the prohibition against ex post facto law.

Defenders of the presumption of innocence are not called upon to show that this legal principle always leads to the best outcome. Sometimes murderers, rapists, and other vile criminals get to go free who would have been convicted under a legal system that presumes the defendant’s guilt. However, we regard the evil of false convictions as greater than the evil of false acquittals, so presumption of innocence is a sensible principle.

Likewise, libertarians should not be expected to show that adopting the NAP would lead to the optimal outcome in every scenario, but merely that it usually leads to better outcomes. I don’t think the former can be done, but the latter is much more manageable. Framing the NAP in this way takes some of the unjust burden of proof from the shoulders of libertarians and thus makes it easier to defend libertarianism.

 

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The Voice of Europe Episode 154 – Men’s issues going mainstream in the UK?

Today, as on most Fridays, I’m co-hosting the Internet radio show The Voice of Europe, alongside Lucian Vâlsan and James Huff. Join us as we discuss gender relations and sexual politics in Europe from a pro-male and anti-feminist perspective.

Tonight’s topics include a mother and son driven to suicide by a false rape accusation in the UK, Sweden’s official twitter account blocking people in the name of freedom of speech, and the mayor of Paris going after a black feminist festival for excluding whites.

The show starts at 8 PM CEST, which is 2 PM EST, 11 AM PST, and 2 AM AWST.

Content warning: Likely to contain the occasional swear word. May be unsuitable for children and snowflakes.

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The News Media’s Inherent Bias

Media bias is currently a hot topic and hardly a day goes by without accusations of “fake news” flying around. Ideological biases are definitely a problem, but here I want to talk about a deeper, more fundamental shortcoming of news media that distorts our perception of reality to an even greater degree than politically biased reporting.

As the name suggests, news is about what is new, that is about what has changed recently. When you read a newspaper, watch a news report on television or browse an online news site, you are told about some of the major ways the world has changed since yesterday. There are several problems with this: First of all, if you didn’t understand the world yesterday, knowing what has changed won’t help you understand today’s world. Secondly, news reports lack proper perspective due to the pressure to report everything as quickly as possible. Thirdly, the news media tends to focus on rapid changes and to ignore slow and gradual change. And lastly, bad news is much more likely to be reported than good news.

Many people imagine that after having gone to school for over a decade, they’ve learned most of the important things there are to learn and have a pretty good grasp on what’s going on. Nothing could be further from the truth. The world is an enormously complicated place and no matter how educated you are, you only understand a small part of it. To really benefit from knowing what changes happen from day to day, you have to already have a reasonably good grasp of the issues involved. So if your goal is to become more informed about the world you live in, reading up on already established knowledge is usually much more fruitful than following the news.

This is especially the case because “old” knowledge – whether it comes from a text-book, a documentary, or a wikipedia entry – has the benefit of perspective. It’s authors are able to look at the world from a richer context and have had time to think about, discuss, and ideally test the ideas they are presenting.

Perhaps most devastatingly, news reports are, by their very nature, concerned with rapid changes. With things which have measurably changed between yesterday and today, or at least within the last few weeks or months. Small, incremental changes and trends that persist over years, decades, and centuries are by and large invisible to the news media.

The reason this is so pernicious is that it leads to the over-reporting of negative stories. Although there are of course exceptions, the general pattern is that improvements are slow and gradual, while set-backs are sharp and noticeable. Economic advancement tends to be slow and not noticable from day to day and thus not a topic well suited to news reporting. But throw in a nice financial crisis and the headlines write themselves. Never mind that we’ve experienced two centuries of utterly unprecedented economic growth, you will still find far more news items about recessions and various economic crises than you will find about the economy running smoothly. Or take medicine, where we’ve had similarly tremendous advances that have contributed to tripling our life expectancy. And yet we read far more stories about epidemics, health crises, and medical malpractice than we do about people recovering through getting competent care.

Paying too much attention to the media can give you a drastically distorted picture of reality. If you look at stories about Third World poverty, you might think things are worse than ever. In reality, the last few decades have seen the greatest reduction in poverty the world has ever seen. But you wouldn’t learn about it by following the news media.

If you actually want to become a little better-informed, my advice is to cut down on your news consumption and spend the time you saved on reading about history, economics, science, philosophy, etc. How about you just spend and hour here or there browsing Wikipedia and read a few articles that interest you? It won’t turn you into an expert, but at least you’ll know more than if you had just spent that time watching the news.

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Quote of the Week: John Maynard Keynes on the Long Run

In the long run we are all dead.

Although some people have interepreted this statement as Keynes displaying a callous disregard for the long term consequences of his proposed policies, that’s not quite accurate. Here is the same quote with a little bit more context:

But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task, if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us, that when the storm is long past, the ocean is flat again.

Keynes uses this rhetorical flourish to criticise economists who only focus on the long run equilibrium and ignore short term effects. This is an entirely reasonable critique. Given that modern economies are in a constant state of flux, it is imperative that economic models have something to say about the process of how an economy adapts to new conditions.

As for the broader question of short term versus long term thinking, Keynes’ famous sentence offers an important antidote to the naive, but relatively widespread, presumption that short term thinking is automatically impulsive and rash and long term thinking prudent and wise. While I do think that excessively short time horizons tend to be more of a problem in today’s society (and many Keynesian economists are guilty of this) than excessively long ones, the opposite danger also needs to be taken seriously.

Perhaps the best contemporary example of excessive long term thinking are environmentalists who spend far too much time worrying about how human actions today might impact the planet hundreds or even thousands of years from now. Using a model which tries to predict the economic effect of climate change two hundred years into the future to try to guide today’s public policy is nothing short of madness. The year 2217 is likely to be at least as different from today as the year 1817 is from the present. Just imagine what fantastic nonsense the monarchs of post-Napoleonic Europe would have concocted if they had tried to predict and solve the problems which would face the world over the next two centuries. If you counter that we are wiser and much more knowledgeable and technologically advanced today, you are missing the point. To the people of the 23rd century, we will likely appear as ignorant and primitive as 19th century people appear to us.

Insofar as a an argument for stopping or mitigating climate change – or any other environmental concern – makes sense, it has to be based on the impacts over the next few decades. Anything that goes beyond that is too speculative. It would be sheer foolishness to sacrifice considerable amounts of present wealth to try to solve something which may not even be a serious problem in the distant future.

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The Voice of Europe Episode 153 – Feminist Boycotts

Today, as on most Fridays, I’m co-hosting the Internet radio show The Voice of Europe, alongside Lucian Vâlsan and James Huff. Join us as we discuss gender relations and sexual politics in Europe from a pro-male and anti-feminist perspective.

Tonight’s topics include a woman getting a free pass for stabbing a man because she is extraordinarily talented, further efforts in Norway to cut down on infant and child circumcision, and a paper which argues that men are responsible for the evolution of female homosexuality.

The show starts at 8 PM CEST, which is 2 PM EST, 11 AM PST, and 2 AM AWST.

Content warning: Likely to contain the occasional swear word. May be unsuitable for children and snowflakes.

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Civilization Is a Plastic Spoon

Have you ever gone on a picnic and taken along disposable plastic cutlery, even though you have perfectly good re-usable cutlery at home? Think about that for a minute. You have someone drill into the bowels of the Earth for you, extract millions-of-years-old fossilised plant remains to be turned into plastic and then formed into the shape of a spoon, packaged with other spoons of its kind, shipped off to a wholesaler and thence to a retailer, where you go to buy it. All of that so that you can get out of having to wash a metal spoon. Once.

Such is the everyday magic of capitalism. Thanks to the enormous degree of division of labour enabled by a modern capitalist economy, a plastic spoon – an artifact so sophisticated that all the wisest men in Periclean Athens, Augustan Rome, or Elizabethan England could not have produced it if they devoted their entire lives to nothing else – can be bought for the equivalent of a few seconds’ wages.

To be sure, plastic spoons are not a big deal. We could do perfectly well without them. But they do make our lives just a little bit more convenient, and they are just one of thousands of similar products that each raise our standard of living by a small amount. Put them all together and an ordinary person in a modern capitalist economy enjoys a higher standard of living than the kings and emperors of bygone centuries.

And yet we show not the slightest appreciation for this miracle. We just take for granted that a few minutes of labour pay for paper and writing utensils that would have taken a pre-modern person weeks of labour to produce (and in inferior quality). We think nothing of the fact that we can costlessly and instantaneously communicate with someone on the other side of the Globe, where sending such a message a few centuries ago would have been dangerous, enormously expensive, and would have taken months. We take it as a matter of course that our homes are brightly illuminated at night at the mere flick of a switch and at negligible cost, whereas a per-modern person would have – at best – a small lantern that produced more smoke than light.

The next time you use a plastic spoon, please take a moment to reflect on the incredible wealth you’re holding in your hand.

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Against Affirmative Action

(An earlier version of this article appeared on A Voice for Men.)

Suppose you were working in a chemical lab, doing some experiment. You get careless and by accident you spill some acid into your eye. What do you do? The way I see it you have three options. Option 1: Do nothing, except blink a bit and rub your eye and hope it will get better. Option 2: Pour water into your eye to dilute the acid. Option 3: Pour a base into your eye, hoping to neutralize the acid.

Obviously, option 2 is the correct choice. Option 1 doesn’t actually solve the problem and you’ll experience unnecessary pain and damage to your eye. Option 3 is clearly insane. For this plan to work, you need to know exactly how much acid is in your eye and how potent it is and you need to be able to pour just the right amount of base into your eye. But even if you were able to do that, there’s still the problem that the acid and the base will not necessarily spread evenly on the surface of your eye so you will have parts that have more acid than base and vice versa. It’s clear that option 3 will do more harm than good.

Now consider a different scenario. You’re running some sort of big organization. It could be a firm, a charity, a social club, a school, a hospital, etc. This organization has many members. Suppose these members belonged to two disjoint and clearly distinguishable groups A and B. Further suppose that you have received information that the Bs are disadvantaged and are being unfairly discriminated against. Despite there not being any official rules favouring one group over the other, almost all the positions of leadership within the organization are filled up with As and the Bs have lower status on average. You are a fair-minded person and want everyone to have the same opportunities and rights within your organization. What do you do?

Option 1: Do nothing and hope the problem goes away on its own. Option 2: Try to reduce discrimination through measures such as awareness campaigns or analyzing enforcement of rules to see if there is discrimination. Option 3: Implement official rules that favour Bs over As, such as a minimum quota of Bs in all leadership positions or a programme specifically designed to help Bs.

As in the previous example, option 1 doesn’t solve the problem and option 2 is clearly reasonable. Option 3 in this case is what is commonly called affirmative action and it is just as insane and detrimental as option 3 in the first example.

First of all, there’s a question we have to consider here which we did not in the first example and that is whether there is actually any discrimination. What if your information about discrimination were false? In the first example it’s immediately obvious that you have acid in your eye because it burns, but with discrimination in a large organization things aren’t so easy. The social sciences are notoriously inaccurate and unreliable. What if there were no acid and you poured in base anyway? What if there were no discrimination and you just introduced discrimination through affirmative action?

Maybe the reason As are doing better is due to different characteristics between As and Bs that are not due to discrimination. Maybe As are more intelligent or better educated, maybe they care more about your organization, maybe they care more about status, maybe they are more willing to make sacrifices to attain high positions, maybe they have more assertive and dominant personalities, maybe As or Bs or both are more comfortable with A leadership.

But even if there is indeed discrimination, it’s not possible to accurately assess its precise nature and severity. If you introduce too little affirmative action, you’re not solving the problem, only mitigating it slightly. If you introduce too much affirmative action, you create a new problem. If you don’t distribute the affirmative action properly, you will overshoot your goal in certain areas and not do enough in others.

Suppose for instance that we could subdivide the two demographics. Group A is actually made up of groups A1 and A2. A1 is actually the only group that’s privileged, while A2 is not. So even though when we regard group A as a whole, A is privileged, it is actually just because of the A1s pulling up the average. Then suppose we can do the same thing with B. B1 is not actually discriminated against, it’s only B2s who actually face discrimination.

So at the start we have one group that’s unfairly privileged, one group that’s unfairly discriminated against and two groups that are being treated fairly. Then we introduce affirmative action and let’s suppose that we magically know exactly what sorts of measures we need to take to make groups A and B even. But then we look at the subgroups and see that we now haven’t actually made anything more fair. A1 is now no longer privileged and B2 is now no longer discriminated against, but the two groups that were being treated fairly before have now merely switched places. A2 now faces unfair discrimination through the affirmative action measures while B1 now has unfair privilege. So even in this idealized world where we can precisely assess the exact right measures to bring about equality between the two groups, we haven’t actually gained any ground. As and Bs collectively are now even, but when we look at the actual individuals, we haven’t improved the situation. Groups have no existence of their own beyond the individuals who make them up. Only individuals think, act, and feel, so what matters above everything else is our treatment of individuals.

A further problem of affirmative action is that it is coercive and violates the principles of meritocracy. People will try to resist it and you are likely to experience a good amount of conflict within your organization. You’ll need to constantly apply pressure to push through and sustain your reforms, which costs a great deal of money and angers people. You also create resentment against Bs. Bs in leadership positions are going to be taken less seriously and command less respect because people will suspect that they got their jobs through affirmative action instead of merit. It also creates a lot of divisiveness between As and Bs and separates them firmly into two different camps.

Things get even worse if the government gets involved. Even if the government officials have the best intentions, they do not know the details of the industries they’re regulating. They just impose some rule from up high that everyone must follow. Because the government does not have to pay for the costs of affirmative action legislation, it is more eager to pass such laws.

More troubling yet is that forcing private companies to comply with so called anti-discrimination legislation is a gross violation of property rights. One of the fundamental aspects of property is the right to include or exclude people from the use of your property. If I own a piece of land, I can forbid you from trespassing. But if I own a company, I no longer get to decide freely who to hire or fire. This erosion of property rights not only hurts the economy, but also infringes on basic economic freedoms.

But the worst thing of all is that the vast majority of politicians are not wise and benevolent leaders who only wish to serve their country. Rather, they act in their own self-interest, often at the detriment of everyone else. Modern democracy does not reward wise leadership and prudent management. After all, most of the voters have neither the inclination nor the knowledge to fully assess most of the decisions that a politician makes. Thus, politicians are more interested in signalling than in effective policies.

Advocating for affirmative action may be very detrimental to society as a whole, and a politician may even be aware of this, but the point is to be seen by the public as doing something against discrimination. It is about signalling opposition to sexism, racism, and other unpopular views. It then becomes difficult for political opponents to oppose proposals for affirmative action without signalling support for discrimination.

It’s impossible to legislate away bigotry through affirmative action. You cannot stop unfair discrimination through further unfair discrimination. Fighting fire with fire is highly dangerous, usually not successful, and people are likely to get burnt in the process. In the end, the only effective way of stopping discrimination is through awareness and through economic self-interest.

In a free market, bigotry doesn’t pay. If, for instance, an entrepreneur were a true misogynist and didn’t want to hire women, no matter how qualified they are, then he is passing up opportunities for making profit. His competitors who do hire women will do better than him, making it difficult for him to keep up. If he doesn’t relent, his market share will decrease and eventually he may go out of business.

This process may be imperfect and it may take a while, but in the end it’s the only way to move closer to a just and meritocratic society.

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Acceptable Losses

Whenever the topic turns to some statistic about deaths, such as this news story about workplace fatalities in West Australia, there is a high likelihood that an ever-popular cliché will be trotted out: “Every single death is one too many.” This sentiment, although emotionally satisfying, is quite harmful.

In a perfect world without scarcity, we should of course prevent every death. In the real world, however, our means are limited. We can invest more resources into workplace safety, but work will never be completely safe and resources spent on workplace safety can’t be spent on other things. If we actually place such a high emphasis on workplace safety that we prevent absolutely all workplace fatalities, that would require such an inordinate amount of resources that we would not be able to devote adequate resources to other concerns, such as health, road safety, crime prevention, safety from natural disasters, etc., which would mean more deaths overall.

Nor should the focus just be on safety and security. A life solely devoted to delaying death for as long as possible would not be worth living. It might feel good to say that human life is invaluable and cannot be measured off against profane concerns such as pleasure or worldly possessions, but our belie our pious words. Whenever we drive somewhere or even just cross the street for a non-essential errand, even though we know this will put us at an incread risk of death, we implicitly put a finite value on our own lives. Parents who take their children along similarly demonstrate that they place a finite value on their children’s lives.

We constantly have to make trade-offs between sacred values such as human life and profane values such as money. In our personal lives, most of us manage to do this reasonably well simply by using our common sense intuitions. But these intuitions break down when it comes to public policy. When sacred values are involved, the discussion becomes very lopsided. No matter how much is already spent on workplace safety, healthcare, security against terrorist attacks, etc., it is very hard to publicly argue against increasing funding or for cutting it without appearing callous and cruel. This is not to say that funding for these projects never gets cut, but the playingfield is tilted and there is a general tendency for funding to increase that is independent from the merit of the case.

How this lamentable tendency can be stopped I do not know, but the first step is awareness. The next time you hear someone say that every death is one too many, challenge them. If more people reflect about this, maybe we can get slightly less insane public policy.

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A Theory of the Political Spectrum Part 2/2

In yesterday’s post, I outlined why it is desirable to have a theory of a one-dimensional political spectrum and talked about some of the requirements that such a theory should fulfill. Today I will present my own theory, which is based on the attitude to hierarchy and equality:

The left believes in equality and sees hierarchy as unnatural, pernicious, and exploitative. They seek to tear down hierarchies and to promote equality. Thus, they favour an economic system that leads to a more even distribution of wealth, which means a generous welfare state or outright socialism. They also oppose social stratification, traditional gender roles, differentiation based on race and nationality, etc.

The right does not believe in equality and sees hierarchy as natural, necessary, and proper. They seek to preserve or to (re-)establish hierachical distinctions. This means they favour an economic system in which those they see as most deserving or worthy dominate. They favour social stratification, traditional gender roles, and clearly defined boundaries for social conduct. They think society functions best if everyone knows his place and has a particular role to play.

Based on this theory, Marxist communists are pretty far to the left, but they are not all the way there since they seek to their undertake their great project of equalisation and flattening of hierachies by means of an extremely powerful state, which by its nature is hierarchical. The true left-wing extremists are anarcho-communists who seek to abolish the state as well as capitalism and private property (which they distinguish from personal property).

Similarly, National Socialists are situated on the right, but not on the far right. They organised society on fairly hierarchical lines, including hierarchical relationships based on nationality and ethnicity, but they also favoured rather middle of the road economic policies (something like militaristic Keynesianism) and emphasised the welfare of German workers. The whole Nazi system is also implicitly based on social mobility; after all, Hitler came to Germany as a penniless immigrant. The idea of National Socialism not being on the extreme right wing was also shared by the Nazis themselves. For example, the Horst-Wessel-Lied, the most famous Nazi propaganda song, bemoans “Comrades shot by the Red Front and reactionaries” (emphasis mine).

Reactionaries are the actual right wing extremists. They favour monarchy, aristocratic and clerical privilege, feudalism, and a rigid class system. Aside from a few neo-reactionaries who have sprung up on the Internet over the last few years, the far right is all but dead.

And therein lies the answer to the puzzle of classical liberals shifting from left to right: classical liberals are about as far left or right as they have ever been, but the political landscape has changed around them. Over the last two hundred years, we have seen a wholesale shift to the left. Whereas in the 18th century leaving the distribution of wealth to the market was egalitarian compared to the prevailing order which gave legal advantages to the rich, that same policy is anti-egalitarian relative to the prevailing systems of welfare and progressive taxation which predominate in the 21st century.

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A Theory of the Political Spectrum Part 1/2

In political discussions, most people use the terms “left” and “right” rather loosely, which has led to some people claiming that the left-right political spectrum is essentially meaningless. Others have claimed that a one-dimensional spectrum is inadequate and that we need two or more dimensions to properly map political positions. While a multi-dimensional mapping can of course be more accurate, it has the disadvantage of being more complicated and losing the relation to traditional understandings of left and right. What I want to do here is to look at some of the features a sensible theory of the one-dimensional political spectrum should have and the problems it needs to overcome. In tomorrow’s post, I will propose a theory which I believe fits the bill.

The modern idea of the left-right poltical spectrum emerged in France around the time of the French Revolution. In the various representative bodies in late 18th century France, supporters of the Ancien Régime (i.e. those who favoured monarchy and aristocratic and clerical privilege) sat on the right (from the perspective of the speaker), while republicans and supporters of the common people sat on the left, and radical supporters of the revolution sat further left than more moderate revolutionaries. Any sensible theory of the political spectrum needs to be true to that.

It also should correspond as closely as possible to our every-day understanding of the words “left” and “right”. For example, in contemporary politics it should put Marxists, democratic socialists, social democrats, liberals in the North-American sense, and conservatives in this order from left to right. Where I think we have to deviate from everyday usage is with the idea of Soviet-style communism and National Socialism being at the opposite extremes of the spectrum. After all, these two poltical theories and systems were in many ways similar: Both were authoritarian and totalitarian dictatorships, both were highly collectivistic, both justified their rule through the will of the people, both engaged in massive genocides, etc. One way of rescuing the traditional understanding here is through the horseshoe theory, which posits that the political spectrum is shaped like a horseshoe with the far left and the far right closer to each other than to the centre. However, constructing the political spectrum onto a strange one-dimensional manifold rather than a straight line makes for an awkward theory.

Another problem that our theory needs to solve is the position of classical liberals and libertarians, i.e. of those who supporter capitalism, individual liberty, and want the state to be non-instrusive. The problem here is that classical liberals were traditionally viewed as being on the left (they were a major part of the original left during the French Revolution), while their modern intellectual descendants are considered to be on the right.

In part 2 I will propose a theory which I believe solves all of these problems.

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