This Week at Libertarianism.org

It’s been a busy week over at Libertarianism.org, Cato’s website exploring the theory and history of liberty. George H. Smith published a new essay in his Excursions series. In this third part of an ongoing look at the history of political philosophy, Smith examines early thinking on political obligation, and how the problem of allegiance was the major concern of John Locke.

When philosophers discuss political obligation they sometimes ignore the crucial distinction between political obligation and political allegiance, despite the fact that many early political debates focused on the latter issue. Political obligation in some form was taken for granted, but this did not answer the crucial question: What makes a government legitimate in the first place?

Read it here.

We also released two new videos. In the first, Walter Williams, speaking at a 1984 Libertarian International conference, explains how the state’s occupational licensing restrictions and other discriminatory laws often prevent minorities from finding gainful employment.

Our second video is a 1986 lecture by economist Fred McChesney. McChesney discusses how private ownership incentivizes productivity in everything from transportation systems to fire departments to oyster beds. Public ownership, on the other hand, incentivizes waste, overuse of natural resources, and higher costs.

Free Thoughts, Libertarianism.org’s blog, had an active week as well. Philosopher Matt Zwolinski kicked things off on Monday with a post on “moralized freedom.”

For if one holds the moralized conception of liberty, then liberty is defined not as freedom from interference per se but merely as freedom from interference with what one has a right to do. If one then says that we have the right to self-ownership, and private property, etc., because those rights protect liberty, then one has argued oneself right into a circle.

As he’s been doing for the last few weeks, economist David D. Friedman pushed back against Zwolinski’s arguments about freedom and private property. In “Is All Freedom Equal?” Friedman accuses Zwolinski of “blur[ring] together the kind of property which does raise problems for libertarians, property in land, which is an uncreated resource, with the kind of property which does not raise such problems, property created by human action.”

The debate didn’t end there. Zwolinski responded a day later with a long post, “Conceptual Claims Aren’t Moral Claims: Why Not All Freedom Matters Equally.” In it, he clarified many of his prior arguments, as well as addressed the broader problem of precision in moral philosophy.

It would be nice if morality were easier. It would be nice if we had a formula that could tell us exactly when and how much each of these considerations matters, and to what conclusion they lead in any particular case. But as far as I can tell, we don’t. And so morality, like painting or architecture or any other skill of reasonable complexity, remains as Aristotle claimed it to be, a domain in which rules and formulas inevitably fall short, and in which ultimately there is no substitute for the experienced judgment of practical wisdom.

Finally, I published the second in my series of posts on the political thought of Robert Nozick. In the first, I gave an overview of Nozick’s theory of natural rights and explained what they say about the role of the state. In this week’s post, I moved on to his debate with libertarian anarchists, specifically his story of how a minimal state can—and, he claims, morally must—rise out of an initially anarchist society, and might do so without violating anyone’s rights.

We’re still living in anarchy, however. None of those agencies can compel people to accept and pay for its services and so the world still contains many “independents,” as Nozick calls them. These independents—either individuals or smaller, non-affiliated agencies—present a problem for the dominant protection agency. In the mind of that agency and its clients, independents take justice into their own hands. The dominant protection agency’s job is to protect the rights of its own clients, so it understandably gets concerned when an independent seeks to extract restitution from one of those clients. Not knowing for sure if the client is guilty, the dominant protection agency is obligated to prevent punishment until guilt is assured. And the only way for the dominant protection agency to be sure (or sure enough) of its client’s guilt is to subject that client to its own procedures.

Next week, we’ll have even more new essays, videos, and blog posts at Libertarianism.org. If you’d like to keep on top of it all, you can follows us on Facebook and Twitter, or sign up to get updates by email.