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June 23, 2007



Wonderful! And I'd consider myself a libertarian.

Gabriel M.

That, historically, the modern state has been one (limited) "implementation" of Rights is undeniable, yet it's unjustified to go from this to claiming that no other implementation is possible or that the status quo is best.

Regarding the State and Rights... Rights are called "natural" exactly because they are not granted by man, but by God, Reason or something similar. What the State grants are positive rights. -- This is the point of having a natural vs. positive distinction, no?

The view that all rights are positive, i.e. created by political process, is problematic in several ways... We have ideas about what's just and what Rights people should have, independent of what the law says. It is precisely these natural rights (life, liberty, free speech) that we use as a reference for judging political process outcomes.

Regardless of what the law in North Korea says, North Koreans have certain rights that are now being violated. This is nonsense for a positive rights theorist. (The same could be said about certain laws in the US too.)

It is ironic how the author cites failed states as an indictment against Stalenessness. Statelessness, as understood by libertarians, is not a decaying State-based order, but rather a society based on different norms. (Medieval Iceland is one of a few examples of polycentric social orders.)

One last point... Anarchist libertarians are not unfamiliar with the work of Thomas Jefferson or of the constitutionalist public choice theoreticians. It is useless to lecture them on the idea of safeguarding natural rights through a constitution. (Sidenote: The State there is a servant of a political/moral vision of natural liberty, which is not compatible with positive rights/entitlements. US liberals are not successors to classical liberals.)

Anarchist libertarians start *exactly* from this position and then point out why it doesn't work.

Anarcho-libertarians reject the view of the State as a very useful tool, in the same way military and political theorists stopped seeing nuclear weapons as very useful tools. Both are, in fact, biggest problems than they're worth.

Gabriel M.

P.S. One does not need be an anarchist to believe that the State is toxic to markets.

Safeguarding life and property are civic issues, not particularly related with market exchange or production.

A (negative) income tax used to finance police, army and courts is a standard vision of classical liberalism, yet this State (it is a state!) would have practically nothing to do with markets.

bob mcmanus

Mike Huben has a nice site, with links to some syndicalist resources I have in my favorites. Thanks for the tip.

Dave Meleney

Paragraph 2 above starts: "Libertarian rhetoric about "getting the government off our backs" makes the positive correlation between individual rights and state power difficult to comprehend.

Doesn't that seem a bit broad? Wouldn't you agree that government can get way too much on our backs? And that many parts of the world are stuck with a reality in which anyone who wants to grow a taxi company or import refrigerators faces a plethora of soldiers, cops, party hacks, and petty bureaucrats that comprise an imposing amount of government? One that rests on people's backs so heavily that poverty and stasis are predominant? And one that insists on remarkable levels of deceit to boot?

I got married in China and had to keep going back to Hong Kong for more cartons of Marlboros for various paperwork to get done..... it is so easy for Americans, who have very little government "on their backs," to imagine that most government is as proper, responsible, and of limited scope as that I find when dealing with the Motor Vehicles Department here in Colorado.

Mike Huben


Of course government can be way too much on our backs. That's why early liberals preached liberalism. That's why the USA is different than China.


It always surprises me to see people who believe natural rights. But then it always surprises me to see people who believe in gods and other such superstitions.

Like gods, and other such superstitions, lots of people can believe in them, but there's no way to agree on any fact about them. You may believe that there is a natural right to own land outright, while Georgists believe there is a natural right for society to collect a rent for that land.

My personal explanation for natural rights is that they are simply rhetorical claims, created in response to other rhetorical claims such as "rights of kings".

Real, enforced rights are coercive: they are political rights. Unless you are willing to coerce, mere claimed rights such as self-ownership will be laughed at by your slavemaster.

You worry about real rights being unjust. Rights are amoral social tools just as weapons are. The idea of liberalism was to use rights in ways that pleased more than just the king.

And finally, it's always sad to hear libertarians refer to Medieval Iceland as a relevant example. Icelandic society was not free in any meaningful sense. They were crushed in a vise of malthusian poverty and extreme environment that readily and visibly punished anyone with death who risked his survival resources. There was little escape from Icelandic society except death due to the isolation of the island.
Punishments by fines were actually death sentences: if not directly to the head of a family, to some member of the family by starvation. And refusal to pay the fines (because of threat of starvation) resulted in deaths from axemen paid to collect the fines or who had purchased collection rights for the fine. Add to this increasing pressure from environmental degradations and mandatory religious tithes (which made the priestly families able to risk provoking fineable offense by poorer families), and you have a combination of environmental and political coercion that was inescapable and inexorable. If people didn't snap and kill some one, it was only because that would bring rapid and fatal judgement to the entire punished household. Iceland was so poor and so highly constrained by the environment that it gave up slavery; not for moral reasons, but because there was a choice between supporting a family member through a winter and supporting a slave through the winter. Apparently there was never a labor shortage in Iceland: slaves were merely viking status goods.

Gabriel M.


I personally don't "believe in" natural rights either. But I do believe in the Charity Principle, which means that we should understand those theorists on their own terms, as much as possible.

It should also be pointed out that natural rights have been at the forefront of moral thinking for millennia before they fell out of fashion, in more recent times. This is why I'm not sure what to make of your impoverished take on this vast and complex subject.

What you're saying makes sense if you're an Ayerian emotivist or otherwise a non-cognitivist, in which case, yes, Thomas Jefferson was a mystic nut, and natural rights are voodoo. If this is where you're coming from, I don't see how you could argue for any type of norms. Otherwise, if morality matters, then what's your guideline, if it's not natural rights?

Also, I think you're conflating moral judgment with operational/institutional implementations. If in the future there will be only two individuals alive on Earth and one kills the other, that's wrong, regardless of the fact that there's no State and no coercive enforcement of the right to life by a central authority.

Right vs. wrong (legitimate vs. illegitimate) is one issue. How to best protect rights is another. Should North Koreas be denied their right simply because it's hard for Westerners to try and enforce them?

The quote posted by Prof. Rodrik above mentions Kant, but didn't he say that justice requires for us to execute convicted criminals even if society is crumbling around us? Moral law requires only Reason. It is independent of particular, contingent historical states and States.

You say "Rights are amoral social tools just as weapons are." but then, what IS moral? If anything, the intellectual tradition on this is exactly to consider rights as the moral guideline.

Regarding Iceland... it should be interpreted in context. First of all, no one said it was a perfect society. What was said is that it was a polycentric social order. Further, we must compare the real with the real, as it were. Medieval Iceland ought to be compared with its contemporaries.



Medieval Iceland's Stateless society was not based on slavery : how did you come up with that idea ?!

As to lessons from political scientists - i.e. people almost invariably government employees all for the government - about libertarianism, isn't APSA the most socialist leaning of the major academic associations ?

Justin Rietz

Mike, I have the same concerns / questions as Gabriel, assuming I correctly understand the arguments you put forth.

We speak of "the government" or "the state" as a separate entity, but in reality it starts out as nothing more than one or more individuals to whom the rest of society decides to respect and obey. Hence, a state may only keep its power in one of three ways, either by continuing to act in a way that the majority of society finds beneficial, arming itself (via a military of some sort) and enforcing its laws by force, or by creating some sort of mythos and thereby "brainwashing" citizens, for the lack of a better word. Usually it is a combination of the three, as we see in the United States. However, the military is a special class, and the only way those in power can control it are via the first and third options, by definition.

If rights are a fiction of the state, how are we able to reject any law that the state might enact? Restrictions on government power are usually enacted under the guise that such restrictions protect the rights of individuals, but if the state creates such rights it may well decide NOT to create them. Then, there is no justification for limits on the state.

Libertarians are not anarchists, as has been previously pointed out. My understanding is the libertarians believe that the state is created by individuals and its role is to protect the rights of those individuals. Individual rights are a priori to the state, and arise from the general concept of "you may do what you want as long as it doesn't directly harm others" to put it simply.

Of course, we could probably debate endlessly about the meaning of direct harm versus indirect harm....


on the face of it

pointing to iceland as top of the mind exhibit
indicates a certain degree of remoteness from
the moving center
of human history

often it helps to reflect on this:

there are stateless societies
in fact a coherent definition of a state society
usual excludes all
human societies
we've uncovered
prior to
8-6 k years ago
oddly the biblical origin of the universe

statist purblinding ???

and what emerged from history may indeed
be sublated by history as a hegeian might note

of course
states and their "rights"
and wrongs
may have
a fair run still ahead
as fatuously complacent
"common sense"
would indicate

Eric H

1) Bundling all libertarians together this way blurs many issues. The tag can refer to anyone from a tax protester to a syndicalist. Those two are unlikely to agree on much.

2) Some of them would be willing to grant you the minarchist state described above by Mike as well as in the quoted text in the post. You then have the problem of explaining the other 97% of the functions now taken over by the government. You could claim that many, such as regulations, are to curb the excesses of capitalists. That runs you into the Kolko thesis that many of those regulations were sought by the regulatees because they work to their advantage. Or you could claim that they are to level the playing field, but that runs you into Kevin Carson's thesis that the playing field was tilted by the state to begin with.

3) It is also worth pointing out that David Friedman maintains a response to Mike's anti-libertarian FAQ at



When you have good arguments to make, it is distracting and arguably uncivil when you cloud it with rhetorical tricks (references to god and to how sad certain arguments make you). Perhaps you should follow the advice of a favorite author of yours who recommended avoiding these tactics:


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