Knee jerk libertarianism

Hal Finney (
Tue, 30 Dec 1997 09:17:07 -0800

The reason why we have had a list rule against debating "the basics" is
so that we could share in a common set of assumptions and spend our time
exploring the ramifications and possible extensions of those assumptions.

It would be useful to consider the basic libertarian assumption of
non-coercive interactions as part of this basic set. I realize that
this is not perfectly well defined, that people will differ about
what constitutes coercion, and the circumstances in which consent is
legitimate. There are also classic hard cases like life threatening
situations where even libertarians may disagree about whether coercion
might be justified.

Even with all those problems, there is still a core of an idea which we
can adopt and share. It is in keeping with extropian ideals of individual
responsibility and maximum personal authority. To the extent that we can
structure our relationships on a voluntary, non-coercive basis, we are
all that much freer.

As it is, we spend far too much time and effort debating issues where
the real question is whether one group can force another person or group
to stop what they are doing even when it does not harm anyone else.
Sometimes this is not even clearly perceived to be the issue, and the
parties end up talking past each other. If we could just say, "this
proposal violates the principle of non-coercion and so is best debated
elsewhere", that would allow us to focus our energies on constructive
and cooperative discourse.

I also see that questions are being answered with knee-jerk libertarian
responses which fail to address the real issue. The issue of infectious
disease arises. People see it as a threat of coercion, that they may be
prevented from going about their business. So they respond negatively and
try to avoid the issue. The issue of social conventions arises. Again
there is an implicit threat of coercion if you don't fit the social norms.
So people respond with their knee-jerk attitude that there should not be
social conventions.

These responses ignore the real world where the laws of nature are such
that people inevitably interact in unplanned ways. Externalities surround
us. My visit to the grocery store causes me to inhale your cigarette
smoke, while you get to listen to my booming car stereo. Until we have
better control over our environment (such as perfect virtual reality)
these kinds of interations will continue to be an important part of
our life.

Yes, we want to live in a world without coercion. Let us agree on that.
We can even grant that all property is private and that whatever rules
are in force in a location are those determined by its owner. Now "the
market will decide" what rules are appropriate in each venue. This is
all old hat, or it should be. But it still tells us exactly nothing
about what those rules will be, what we would prefer them to be.

I suggested a mechanism earlier to approach consideration of these
questions without this knee-jerk response of anti-coercion. Suppose you
have a choice of "worlds" to go to (I suggested space stations, but in
a more realistic context it could be alternative grocery stores with
different policies). Which would you prefer? What set of conventions
for unplanned interactions do you think would be most pleasant?

Ideally there will be no point nor any need for knee-jerk libertarianism
on this list. People can have the libertarian debate elsewhere. There is
no shortage of places where the fundamental issue of the legitimacy of
coercion can be discussed. There is even a saying that all debates are
really the libertarian debate: an exaggeration, but still with a germ
of truth. Certainly most of our "basic" disagreements have revolved
around this issue.

Let's move on and try not to keep getting bogged down on this question.