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When the Needy Can Take from the Wealthy

Wants and Needs

A typical characteristic of libertarians that is rarely found among other people is an assumption that it is desirable, possible, and practical to bring universal theorizing into politics. Libertarians desire a theory of politics that can be applied everywhere, to all societies, to all people, no matter how differently they should feel about the nature of the good life and how differently they should go about pursuing happiness. Therefore, libertarians find the reducto ad absurdum argument to be extremely convincing, whereas in mainstream political discourse, which is interested only in discussing the merits of incremental changes without considering ultimate implications, it is hardly considered relevant at all.

In mainstream politics, searching for the right constituting of society is treated as a matter of balancing contradictory principles freedom and security, or private gain with public benefit. Libertarians do not want a little of this and a little of that at least not in the foundations of their theory. They want to know what can be said universally.

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A surprising result of all this theorizing is that the libertarian philosophy can be applied to all situations. The libertarian philosophy that people should each have a domain over which he has control, and that human organizations must be built out of individual agreements between people as to the sharing and exchange of these domainscan be applied everywhere without leading to contradictory or absurd conclusions. A libertarian society might be populated by people who are compassionate or uncompassionate, ascetic or hedonistic, intellectual or low-brow, spiritual or materialistic, and each society would enable it's people to construct solutions to whatever we're the most pressing problems in each.

The libertarian philosophy is difficult for many people to accept because it is not founded upon the explicit intent of providing certain necessities, compassion, security, and so on. People therefore interpret the libertarian philosophy as one that advances a single principle to the exclusion of all others. Yet these issues are certainly not unimportant to libertarians our desires for compassion, safety, security, and philanthropy will be all be served as indirect consequences of adhering to libertarian principles. They simply require no special treatment in the foundations of the theory.

A case in point is the issue of neediness. If one person has a lot, and another has very little, has he a right to demand a lotlabor that is unhealthy, dangerous, or humiliatingfrom the other to part with some of it? This sort of exchange intuitively feels like a kind of coercion.

However, thinking about the issue more generally, it is at once evident that the concept of neediness is not universalizable. Neediness cannot be defined objectively. Everybody is needy in different ways. We see this in the likes of characters like Ebeneezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchet, who are both needy in a different sense, and both quite capable of envying the other: Scrooge has wealth, whereas Cratchet has friends, a wife, and children. (In an inspiring libertarian ending, Scrooge and Cratchet, in developing a closer relationship, are able to satisfy one another's needs.)

The requirements of sustaining my life are not a sufficient to define neediness objectively. At any moment of my life, different things will sustain it for different amounts of time, so it is not simply a question of sustaining, but rather, how much life do I want to pay for? Living to my sixties might not take too much maintenance, but living through my seventies and eighties will be vastly more expensive. The last two weeks of my life may cost as much as the rest combined, and who could possibly afford that? From one perspective, we are all needy because we are all heading inevitably for death, but from another, no one is really needy because we all have the option of suicide so as to end all suffering.

There are certainly instances in which I would willingly choose not to sustain my life. I may give up my life if that is necessary to save someone I find more deserving. I may choose not to forgo life support because I would prefer to leave money to my heirs rather than blow it on a few extra miserable weeks. I could spend my life eating french fries rather than salad because I think the enjoyment is worth the health risks.

The conclusion is inescapable: neediness is not a valid concept in a universalizable theory of politics. Neediness is subjective. Therefore, a libertarian society that recognize any special place for the needy must do so as a result of social evolution rather than because of sheer logical necessity.

The Choice to Punish

It is very possible that a libertarian society should be tremendously empathetic towards the needy and opposed to the idea that anyone should deny him what he needs. For these libertarians, there is indeed a kind of loophole for them that can be exploited in libertarian theory.

Consider the case of a lost dehydrated man crawling through the desert who finds himself upon a small but life-saving oasis. Quickly he homesteads it, perhaps by moving rocks to increase the flow of water or by making fortifications around it. A second lost man arrives and asks for water. The first man, even though there is plenty, refuses and orders the second away to almost certain death. The second man, growing frustrated, attempts to grab some water by force. Before analyzing this scenario, let us recognize first that it is monstrously unfair as a test of libertarian principles. The indirect benefits of libertarianism come as a result of social experimentation, yet this example is divorced from any kind of society. It assumes a situation without any kind of social norm demanding compassionate behavior. It is an isolated incident, so the people involved have no reason to think about their future interactions, and there is no possibility of discovering new solutions through trial-and-error.

But back to the scenario. At this point, in the midst of battle, a friendly tribe of libertarian Bedouins arrive and buy some water, some of which they give to the second man. The first man brings charges of trespassing, assault, and theft upon the second, and the Bedouin judge agrees to settle their dispute. As a matter of libertarian law, there is no doubt that the first man had an absolute right to refuse admittance to the second, but libertarianism places no positive obligations on anyone. Thus the Bedouins are not by any means obligated to help the first wanderer to defend himself against the second or to help punish the second for his crime.

So there is a possible way out for the poor and needy second wanderer. If most people refuse to acknowledge his crime, then it is much easier for him to commit it. This conclusion can be taken even further: though we have some right to defend our property, we do not have the right to defend it by any means necessary. To defend property against an intruder requires coercion against that intruder, and excessive coercion in the name of self-defense may be taken as a crime in and of itself. If I were, say, to shoot someone for accidentally stepping on my foot, that would not be seen as a legitimate form of self-defense, for example. The precise point where self-defense becomes excessive is subjective, just as with neediness, so the rules about what kinds of retribution are appropriate for what crimes will also be a matter of social evolution.

Thus, it is the right of the Bedouin judges to say, not only that they see no pressing reason to punish the second wanderer, but that they will regard any resistance on the part of the first man as a serious crime which they would be most zealous to punish. In a libertarian society, depending on peoples' preferences, depending on the kinds of legal rules they are willing to adopt, it may happen that the law systematically looks the other way for some kinds of crimes.

Production and Punishment

On the other hand, I suggest that there are instances in which even small crimes committed by the needy deserve strict punishment. Consider now another oasis, this time with a village living around it, depending on it, and making a considerable effort to conserve it for only it's most important uses.

Now the water is not a sudden gift from nature that is needed just once to survive, but a commodity that must be continually replenished every day. A single legal precedent can now have far-reaching consequences. A rule that allows a needy person to steal water and escape punishment benefits the needy and punishes the productive; hence we can expect the needy to prolong their neediness than they might otherwise and the water producers to scale down production.

These effects could very well be destructive to the village. Water being such a carefully conserved commodity means that any disruption in it's production or increase in price would bring hardship to everyone. If society cannot afford these consequences, it is to be expected stealing water we're a serious crime here, even for the severely dehydrated.

As I have emphasized, a libertarian society can be expected to have had time to invent solutions to it's problems, so there is no reason to expect that people will have to go without water, despite the harsh rules. There will be social norms in place which emphasize conservation and sharing if that is what is required.


But surely, you say, this sort of thing could lead straight back to the kind of tyranny that libertarians spent generations destroying! The courts refuse to punish a starving man for stealing one day, and then the next they recognize a king and refuse to punish him when he rounds up everyone he doesn't like in a concentration camp. This is conceivable; a libertarian society can transition into something else if everyone just stops caring. However I find it highly doubtful; it would be near impossible for a rule that let's a criminal off to become standardized except in cases where nearly everyone would agree that punishment is undeserved.

Even in a free market society which is lax in it's punishment of criminals and in which various petty crimes run rampant, there is one principle which it need not compromise at all: equality before the law. When people are truly equal before the law, anyone can open up a courthouse and negotiate contracts with people to settle their disputes. No one can claim to have a legalized monopoly backed by force as does the state. This ensures that the law will be applied according to peoples' preferences rather than by a small group of parasitic elites.

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Posted in Law Post Date 01/23/2018






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