Sunday, September 2, 2007

Did Walter Block inadvertently illustrate the problem with Noninitiationism?

A necessary, but not sufficient, condition for an ethical philosophy to be worthy of consideration is the possibility for humans to follow it. Religions can afford to have original sins because they may also have mysteries of faith; serious philosophers cannot play such games of Calvinball.

Quite a few libertarians, with more tolerance for cognitive dissonance than myself, espouse (or think they espouse) something called the Noninitiation of Force Principle, also known as the Nonaggression Principle, Nonaggression Axiom, or Zero Aggression Principle. The trouble is that, like Derrida's deconstructionism, Noninitiationism is a mere intellectual wrecking ball, a rhetorical flourish that can be used to discredit all law as immoral and impugn, given a creative enough crane operator, all human action. Despite this, belief has become so pervasive that many confound this ethical proviso with libertarian political philosophy and some, perhaps realizing and perhaps not realizing that they would exclude Hayek and Friedman, actively attempting to redefine "libertarianism" so as to mean noninitiationism.

It's a terrible problem on the political end of the libertarian movement, as it's wielded like a club to justify the arbitrary whims of the true believers. Land ownership as absolute sovereignty is OK, shooting trespassers is OK, arrest for drunken driving is not. Bring up an idea from the academic libertarian mainstream, perhaps something straight out of Epstein or Nozick, that's unfamiliar to pop libertarianism, and it's bound to have at least one lout rambling about initiation of force, turning the rest against it. The enemies of liberty could not have invented a better way to keep a libertarian movement from gaining traction!

Prominent among noninitiationist wrecking-ball swingers are the so-called Austrian Economists. Austrian Economics as actual economics will just about die with Israel Kirzner and George Reisman, if it can't be said to have died with Hayek; what we see now is a mix of ideology, metaeconomics, and nonstandard philosophy going by the same name, rooted largely in what amounts to an argument-from -incredulity about the applicability of mathematics (and hence quantitative reasoning) to economics and a bizarre rejection of empirical, quantitative verification of predictions. In other words, the Austrians reject the notion that economics is or can be science.

Austrians are as largely and rightly ignored by mainstream economists as a Phlogiston School of Statistical Mechanics would be ignored by physicists. A few bother to take them on, mainly out of dismay at the number of libertarian-minded potential economists they attract, most prominent among them Bryan Caplan, who has in turn attracted the Austrians like an open pop can attracts wasps. In particular, Walter Block has had it out for Caplan. Given Caplan's newfound rockstar status, it was only a matter of time before Block started gunning for The Book.

In the grand Rothbardian tradition of Not Getting It, Block, in his review, takes issue with Caplan's treatment of tradeable emissions rights neither because he disagrees with the underlying economics nor because he explicitly believes that public mistrust of TERs is not primarily caused by anti-market bias, but rather because Block himself believes TERs to be immoral. To quote:

He errs by classifying opposition to tradable rights (TERs) as an instance of anti-market bias. Not so. Rather, TERs are akin to tradable rape or murder rights. Pollution is necessarily an invasion or violation of property rights. It constitutes a trespass of smoke and dust particles emanating from the aggressor to the lungs or land of another person. As such, there is not and cannot be a "right" to do so. Just because TERs "get you more pollution abatement for the same cost" does not gainsay this fact. Tradable murder or rape or assault and battery "rights" would undoubtedly function in the same manner, but this does not in any way render them compatible with libertarian theory.

How "libertarian theory" entered the picture is anyone's guess, but, back to the point: I necessarily pollute to live. Even if I were to cease using modern technology, I'd still pollute, giving off CO2, methane, and various other gases and fine particulates, some of which end up in the lungs or land of others without their consent. Furthermore, the first two cause a diffuse harm to the whole of humanity. I cannot live without being, in Block's terms, an "aggressor" or initiating force.

Thank you, Walter Block, for making clear--in a nonsequitur!--a point I've been trying to drive home to pop-libertarian ideologues for at least five years! Noninitiationist libertarianism, properly realized, is voluntary human extinction, at least down to the level where people can all seek each other's consent for every action, until a pathological character emerges who consents to nothing but being alone.

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