There Are No Procedural Moral Rights

Richard at Philosophy, et cetera objects to The Hanover Street Shoeshine Boys and similar libertarian parables on the grounds that

Mayor:thief :: juror:vigilante

In other words, Richard argues, instutional actions are sometimes justified, even though these same actions--if commited by an individual citizen--would be unjustified, because there are procedural safeguards (rule of law, trial by jury) present when an institution acts that are not present when an individual acts.

This misunderstands the purpose of the parable in two ways. Parables like Hanover are primariy used by libertarians in response to love-it-or-leave-it arguments. When a libertarian objects to, say, social contract theory justifications for the state on the grounds that she never signed any social contract, the love-it-or-leave-it response is that her continuing presence in the territory to which the state claims jurisdiction over itself constitutes consent to the social contract, and therefore justifies the state's jurisdiction. If she doesn't like the rules, she is free to leave (or change them through electoral participation).

But the love-it-or-leave-it response is entirely circular. It assumes the very thing it is attempting to prove - the legitimacy of the state's jurisdiction over a given territory. Unless we first assume that the state is the legitimate owner of the territory in question and can therefore set the rules (and if we assume that, we have already assumed our conclusion), the freedom to leave the territory is no freedom at all. Your neighbor can't come over to your house and tell you to wear a funny hat or feel free to leave, because it's not his house to begin with.

The second misunderstanding is that procedural safeguards are not moral rights. Procedural safeguards are justified on practical, epistemic grounds, not on ontological, moral rights grounds. There is nothing inherently rights-violating about vigilantism, so long as the vigilante happens to be right about who commited the crime. We may think the vigilante reckless, but not that he has violated any moral right of the person he punishes, if the person he punishes happens to have commited the crime.

Robert Nozick failed to recognize this distinction, and thought that he could justify the state on the grounds of procedural rights. Randy Barnett demonstrated Nozick's error:

Though only the innocent party may rightfully use self-defense, it is often unclear to neutral observers and the parties involved just who is innocent. As a result there exists the practical problem of determining the facts of the case and then the respective rights of the disputants. But I must stress here that this is a practical question of epistemology not a moral question. The rights of the parties are governed by the objective fact situation. The problem is to discern what the objective facts are, or, in other words, to make our subjective understanding of the facts conform to the objective facts themselves.

The crucial issue is that since rights are ontologically grounded, that is grounded in the objective situation, any subjective mistake we make and enforce is a violation of the individual's rights whether or not a reliable procedure was employed. The actual rights of the parties, then, are unaffected by the type of procedure, whether reliable or unreliable. They're only affected by the outcome of the procedure in that enforcement of an incorrect udgment violates the actual rights of the parties however reliable the procedure might be. ...

Nozick's epistemic considerations are relevant to whether one who indiscriminately takes restitution from people he's not sure are aggressors (but happens by chance to be right) is a good man. This is a question of morality, not rights. Epistemic considerations are also relevant when we realize that we are likely to aggress against innocent people and be responsible to them if we aren't careful about who we "punish." This is a practical question, not one of rights. ...

We may take as our moral goal or end a certain state of affairs. Anything which enhances this state of affairs we may do provided we don't violate certain moral side constraints on our actions. Nozick correctly argues that the protection of rights is not a moral goal since this would allow us to violate the rights of a few in order to generally enhance the rights of the many. For example, one may not torture the innocent person to gain information which will prevent the explosion of a bomb even though this would generally enhance the goal of protecting peoples rights (in this case the rights of the potential victims). Rights of individuals are moral side-constraints. We may strive to achieve our goals in any way which does not violate an individual's rights.

I would adapt this view to our discussion here. For practical and moral reasons, procedural fairness and knowledge by enforcers of the guilt of their suspects are moral goals to be striven for. Our efforts to achieve them, however, cannot violate the rights of any individual. To punish a victim for taking restitution from his actual aggressor just because he wasn't sure it really was his aggressor is a violation of that victim's right of self-defense and, therefore, a violation of our moral side-constraint. The right of self-defense, then, dictates that procedural fairness and epistemic certainty are goals, not constraints.

- Randy Barnett, "Wither Anarchy? Has Robert Nozick Justified The State?" Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1. pp 15-21 Pergamon Press, 1977

The lesson of Hanover still stands: taxation is theft.

(Incidentally, I notice that Richard rejects the deontological notion of side-constraints in favor of some version of utilitarianism. As it happens, so do I. So Richard is free to reject this second argument, but I think the first is still valid.)

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The love it or leave it

The love it or leave it argument is awfully common, especially in the US where people are less likely to challenge the individual right / property right assumptions. Recently someone offered me an argument that I feel is worth considering.

Assume you own some land. There is some jurisidiction right associated to it. One argument is that in the sequence of previous owner, at least one must have been a statist who voluntarily waived his sovereignty and gave the US government jurisdiction over his land. In this case the anarchist who now owns the land would have no claim over the jurisdiction but rather a claim over the previous owner for misrepresenting the property when he sold it.

This is a more elaborate version of "it was priced in when you bought it" (price has nothing to do with it).

That is interesting. Not a

That is interesting. Not a bad argument at all.

Wouldn't this same argument

Wouldn't this same argument work to justify the legitimacy of a long-standing mafia protection racket whose victims had long ago resigned themselves to paying off each month? Yet few would say that this resignation was "voluntary" in any true sense of the word.

I think the usual objection

I think the usual objection goes like this: "When a slave accepts the food from his master, that does not legitimize slavery."

Hmm, there still seems

Hmm, there still seems something different.  Presumably the reason I resign myself to the Mafia racket is out of express or implied coercion.  But it's not clear Arthur's statist is giving jurisdiction to the state while under duress. 

there are *only* procedural rights

On your first argument: I'm no contractarian, so if all you're trying to do is argue against "love it or leave it" contractarianism (rather than argue for any libertarian claims), that's fine by me.

The second argument is where the action is at. I'm glad you join me in rejecting it. But then it puzzles me why you accuse me of a "second misunderstanding" in the first place. I "understand" the deontological libertarian view of moral rights just fine. I'm arguing against it. My whole point is that it's the libertarian who has a confused conception of rights.

There are no natural rights; instead, all rights are "justified on practical, epistemic grounds." This can be shown to hold even of the right to life itself, which I show may be limited or circumscribed given appropriate background conditions. One we recognize this, it would be absurd to deny the possibility of similarly circumscribing the right to property (such as to institute a modicum of redistribution, say, if such a rule would serve to maximize the good).

N.B. On this indirect utilitarian conception of rights as institutional constructions, the claim that "taxation is theft" is simply a category error. But I explain all this in my first linked post above, so I won't repeat myself here.

If libertarian theory is

If libertarian theory is well understood, I believe there's no 'right to life'. In fact there are not really no "rights" per se but rather people holding better claim than others over the use of scarce ressources. Our only 'right' would be that we have the best claim over the use of our own body and mind.


How is this not playing semantics? I fail to see the difference between "I have a right to life" and "I have the best claim over the use of my body." Unless libertarians are willing to admit that you don't necessarily have the best claim over the use of your own body in all circumstances, this just seems like change of symbols for the same concept.

Perhaps Arthur could explain

Perhaps Arthur could explain himself further. As it stands, I agree with Matt.

I'll try to explain the best

I'll try to explain the best I can but I need to think upon this further to produce a clearer explanation.

If you become ill, it is no one's duty to save you thus you have no right to life. It is tempting to enumerate "rights" and describe libertarian theory based on those... For example one might say : Oh you have a right to life... and property, yes, yes you can own property... and free speech, you have a right to free speech, and so on. This approach will then argue that your different "rights" sometime enter in conflict. In the case of abortion for example one might think there's a conflict between the woman's right to use her own body and a foetu's right to life - in fact there is no such conflict.

I think the view that libertarianism is a collection of general rights is based on a vision of positive law where rights are explicitely granted by a government.

My definition of right is based on the observation that there are roughly two kinds of conflicts. Those which concern scarce ressources, and the others. The conflicts which are not about scarce ressources can be solved by ignorning one another. In the case of conflict about a scarce ressource, the purpose of  justice is to determine who has the best claim, which can be interpreted as a property right. Rights then are not general super-moral-powers than men have, but a mere collection of trivial claims over things. I have a right over my computer, my stomach, etc, etc.

If you become ill, it is

If you become ill, it is no one's duty to save you thus you have no right to life.

But this just means you have no positive right to life; no claim on others to sustain your life. You would still have a negative right to life; a claim on others not to kill you. You would still have the strongest claim to control over your own body, just not the strongest claim over the resources needed to keep your body alive.

Pro-life libertarians?

Unless libertarians are willing to admit that you don't necessarily
have the best claim over the use of your own body in all circumstances

It seems like pro-life libertarians are willing to admit this.


I think I see the distinction now, but as I understand it, it won't work in Arthur's favor. A right to life is a (negative) right to merely continue existing. Having the best claim over the use of your body under all circumstances is more than merely a right to exist, it's also a right to be free from others' attempts to control you. In other words, saying no one can control me is more than saying no one can kill me. In the case of the pro life libertarian, the right to life of the unborn child trumps the "right to body" of the mother.

With that being said, any libertarian who thinks the death penalty is ok rejects both the absolute right to life and, by implication, the absolute right to body.

I believe you can alienate

I believe you can alienate body parts, even while keeping them inside your body. Something which is not accepted by many libertarians. I for example believe that you can put your frontal lobe as collateral in a contract.

Ha. So it seems the

Ha. So it seems the argument has come down to this:


Richard: Libertarians use story X as an argument against Uists. This is wrong.

Micha: Au contraire, story X is used as

1. an argument against Yists.

2. an argument against Zists.


Richard: I'm not a Yist or Zist. I'm a Uist.


Micha is right that some libertarian parables are used for the purposes he lists, but Richard is right that they are used in the manner he specifies too--as means of analogizing private and public actions. Richard is right that the institutional component is often ignored in such analogies (though we could bake it in quite easily, simply create a private institution comparable to the public institution and compare two actors within), but Micha's right that, to a Zist (like me, incidentally), that's irrelevant.

(Actually, I'm not entirely sure that Barnett is correct that procedures are morally irrelevant, but I grant the argument seems hefty).

At any rate, the reason I mentioned Richard's blog and linked to his response was not to spark debate, but mainly to advertise his blog, because gosh darn it, it's one of my favorites.

Barnett doesn't claim that

Barnett doesn't claim that procedures are morally irrelevant: he claims that procedural safeguards are valid as moral goals but not as moral constraints.

Institutional procedures are in fact incorporated into the Hanover parable; after all, the Hanover Street Shoeshine Boys do vote before they decide to take your money. Nozick even discussed the inadequecy of democacy in ASU as a procedural safeguard in his Tale of the Slave.

I do agree: Richard's blog is great.

Test the theory

This can be shown to hold even of the right to life itself, which I show may be limited or circumscribed given appropriate background conditions.

Let's test this by employing a high-level, un-detailed statement about morality. The moral sense is a partly innate, partly learned sense which increases the individual's fitness relative to other individuals in the population. This, after all, is what our actual moral sense really is. It is a means of self-preservation - it is an adaptation of the individual to the environment, where the environment is human society.

It follows from this that, in the context of human society, an individual who accepts a genuine moral rule is on average more fit than an individual who rejects that genuine moral rule. Specifically, if Bob is moral and Tom is immoral and they live in the same society, one which contains both Bob and Tom, then on average Tom will die childless more often than Bob.

Now consider Badland. Suppose that Bob accepts the lottery and Tom rejects it. If you work through the example, it turns out that Tom is more fit than Bob. Bob's acceptance manifests itself when he is picked and goes meekly to his death; Tom's rejection manifests itself when he escapes the lottery, causing 30 randomly selected people to die. Tom has a slightly higher probability of surviving than Bob does, even though Tom's rejection lowers the average probability of survival.

It follows that Bob's acceptance of the lottery is not genuinely moral.

The argument that Bob's acceptance is moral looks, not at Bob's and Tom's survival, but at the survival of the average member of the society. It is, in effect, group selectionist. Our actual moral sense however is not a product of group selection but of individual selection. Along with, of course, everything else.

Badland is an environment which is designed by the philosopher to render individual selection unsustainable. Imagine an environment in which an omniscient omnipotent deity randomly sterilizes 30 individuals out of the population of some species if a randomly selected animal fails to cut out its own balls/ovaries. This is essentially the same as the Badland scenario. Since evolution operates on the individual, not the group, the trait of cutting out one's own reproductive organs will not be selected for in this environment, because the deity is placing the wrong kind of pressure on the population to encourage that trait. If the population is not sufficiently fertile, then in the end the population will be wiped out, whereas it would not have been had group selectionism been true.

The take-home lesson is that in certain conceivable environments, genuine morality may spell the end of humanity, and this is, admittedly, a vulnerability. However, this is really not something to lose sleep over, because this vulnerability in the face of certain conceivable environments holds for all of life (i.e. biological life), since it is not only morality that is the product of individual selection, but all of life is. And yet, here we are, after billions of years. So, environments that punish species for not evolving through group selection cannot be all that common.

Now it may be that a group of people may deliberately form a compact, according to which each gives permission up front to sacrifice him in the event that he is selected. But this is not the moral sense, because the latter is not the product of a deliberately formed contract.

Does it matter that the

Does it matter that the innate part of the moral sense may have only been appropriate for the ancestral environment and not the modern world, in the same way that a taste for sweets is no longer beneficial for the individual?

Separate issue

I don't think it impacts my point. Give people enough time to evolve a new innate moral sense, and the result is the same for Badland, because Badland is constructed to defeat evolution as it is. My objection is to the approach of judging whether something is moral by a simple body count. I don't think actual morality works that way in either of its aspects (genetic evolution or individual learning). A simple body count ends up judging a given mutation by a group-selectionist criterion, i.e., it judges the mutation by how many in the total population are left alive as an effect of the mutation occurring in some individual. But actual natural selection doesn't work that way. Natural selection will tend to favor individuals which increase the proportion of their progeny in the population, regardless of their effect on the total population size. So a Badland-like environment will, if the population is not fertile enough to counteract it, tend simply to extinguish the species. Evolution as it is will be defeated by such an environment.

But considered as an issue on its own, then no, I don't think it matters that our innate moral sense may not be appropriate for the modern world. If it is not appropriate (by individual-selectionist criteria), then over time we will adapt. Variations that are better adapted to modernity will tend to increase their representation in the population. But this will be in accordance with natural selection as it is - so individuals who sacrifice themselves purely for the greater good rather than for the disproportionate good of their own relatives will tend to die out.

But suppose it is not appropriate. Well - what then? It is still what it is. Morality comes from our nature. Over time our nature may - will almost certainly - change. And our morality may change with it. But our nature is what it is today, and it is what it is regardless of whether we are ideally adapted to the current environment. Natural law is based on human nature. If human nature changes, the law natural to humans may change. I suppose that you could quibble: if we are not ideally adapted to the current environment then the ESS for the current environment differs from our actual strategies. So if you define natural law in terms of the ESS then natural law could conceivably be different from the natural law we are able to recognize. But this quibble can be resolved simply by remembering to specify whether the "nature" in "natural law" refers to our innate nature or to "nature" in the sense of environment (our current environment, to which we might be ill adapted).

That said, I think that for the most part our innate moral sense is well-adapted to the modern world. It seems to be. I have seen critiques of it but in essence they seem generally to be group-selectionist. Utilitarianism is fairly popular, and it is pure group selection. The reason utilitarianism sorta kinda captures actual morality is that our social interactions work to internalize externalities. So someone whose existence tends to extinguish the existence of many others will tend to find his own existence extinguished right back. The fit is imperfect, because the ill effect on others needs to be sufficiently concentrated for them to react. People are more likely to get away with dispersed, dilute harm, and such things will not be considered wrong. What about applying this to the Badland environment? In the Badland environment, good behavior is extremely harshly punished (the individual is sacrificed), and in a sense the harm is diluted (since, considered as an increased probability of dying, the effect of one person's escape from sacrifice is dilute). The punishment for escaping the sacrifice would need to be something like killing the person's whole family, and then you'd have the person's whole family with its concentrated interest in survival, matched against other people's diluted interest in the sacrifice proceeding as God demands. I would tend to bet with the concentrated interest.

evolutionary ethics and mathematics

"Let's test this by employing a high-level, un-detailed statement about morality. The moral sense is a partly innate, partly learned sense which increases the individual's fitness relative to other individuals in the population. This, after all, is what our actual moral sense really is. It is a means of self-preservation - it is an adaptation of the individual to the environment, where the environment is human society."

I assume the same could be said of our mathematical sense. Of course, evolution does not determine what mathematical claims are true. (Nor would anyone think to "test" a mathematical thesis by considering whether a disposition to believe the thesis would increase evolutionary fitness.) For some strange reason, the corresponding points about moral truths and their (non-)relation to evolution seems less obvious to many people.

Evolution and math

I assume the same could be said of our mathematical sense.


Of course, evolution does not determine what mathematical claims are true.

But it does determine our judgments. If our judgments are true (as we have little choice but to assume they are), and if we can arrive at what those judgments are by evolutionary reasoning (as we presumably can since it is our judgment and we are a product of evolution), then we can arrive at the truth by evolutionary reasoning. (But see below.)

(Nor would anyone think to "test" a mathematical thesis by considering
whether a disposition to believe the thesis would increase evolutionary

One can do this, but it would likely be redundant. Generally speaking, true beliefs increase fitness. So if you want to know if some belief increases fitness, the obvious first step is to check whether it is true. The way to do this for a belief in a mathematical thesis is to do the math. Once you have done the math, if your ultimate goal was to test the mathematical thesis it would be redundant to take a detour through evolutionary fitness.

So an argument from fitness would likely be redundant in the case of mathematics. However, it is not necessarily redundant for everything. Specifically, a moral argument from fitness, far from needing to incorporate a utilitarian calculation, seems to readily yield a corrective to utilitarianism.

Richard, As you note, the


As you note, the parable only works against two types of arguments: contractarian arguments and deontological arguments like Nozick's. I agree: it doesn't work against utilitarian arguments for the state, for the same reason that utilitarians have no objection to mafia protection rackets, so long as mafia protection rackets do a better job of promoting good consequences than any alternative institution. So a utilitarian need not object to the claim that taxation is theft; there isn't anything categorically wrong with theft, so long as theft promotes good consequences.

Your misunderstanding is that the parable isn't meant for you.

Common sense

Never mind me; is the parable meant for fence-sitters, the ordinary folks who have no firm theoretical views going into the debate? I thought that it was: that it was meant to convince ordinary people that their "common sense" commitment to respecting rights (opposing theft, etc.) should lead them to oppose government taxation. (That's surely the most natural use of parables: to bring out the implicit commitments of common sense, not to constitute a counterargument in an ongoing technical debate. It's hard to see how a parable could be suited to the latter task.)

That's how I was understanding the dialectic. So that's why I argued that in fact our best conception of rights -- which even captures our common sense judgments (unlike crude utilitarianism) -- does not support the private-to-public inference that is central to the parable. I'm saying the parable is a failure by the standards of common sense and understanding.

Now, obviously I can't dispute what your purpose was in posting the parable. But on its most natural interpretation, the parable is misleading and fallacious. I thought that was worth pointing out, since it is the interpretation of the parable's argument that most people are going to read into it, and it would be unfortunate if people were fooled by a fallacious argument (even if it is not one that you intended to make).

Responding to Democracy

Since we happen to currently live in a democracy, as do most people in the developed world, it is no great surprise that democracy is often used as a justification for the state. Part of what the Hanover parable and others like it are designed to do is to show that majority vote is not sufficient to turn a wrong into a right. And majority vote happens to be the procedural safeguard most people turn to when they want to distinguish institutional acts from private acts.

Of course, they could instead point to things like trial by jury, Miranda warning, warrants, the appeals process, and other procedural safeguards, and these in turn could be included in the parable. But part of what makes a parable useful is the distillation of a complex reality into its most basic parts.

The ordinary folks who have no firm theoretical views going into the debate nevertheless believe that there is something mystical about democracy that can turn an otherwise unjust act into a just one. I choose to classify this as a form of social contract theory, as that is what it is called by its more sophisticated advocates and critics, even though most people who use the democracy argument have probably never heard of the term contractarianism.

So it's not merely a counterargument in an ongoing technical debate; the debate is only technical if we are sophisticated enough to diagram the flow of the debate in technical terms. Most people who use the democracy argument are not that sophisticated; they are using a contractarian argument even though they do not know what a contractarian argument is.

Am I the only one who sees a

Am I the only one who sees a tension between Barnett's attempt to criticize Nozick's building the state on procedural grounds, and Barnett's attempt in Restoring the Lost Constitution to do the same thing?

Yeah, I noticed that too.

Yeah, I noticed that too. Maybe email him and ask him if he agrees there is a tension?

My guess would be he would answer that his effort in Restoring is not to legitimize the state itself, but only to give the Constitution a prima facie aura of legitimacy because of its likelihood to respect rights as a result of its precedural safeguards. In so far as the Constitution violates those same rights, it loses its prima facie aura of legitimacy.

No way. I think Barnett

No way. I think Barnett finally likes me again, no way I'm risking that.

Libertarian Parable

Taxation is theft. If there is an election and the majority votes for a tax it is still theft. Since this was immoral, government was done away with. I got a job pumping gas at Joe’s gas station and took my first check to the bank. I drove to the bank on a road. Since there are no taxes there were two private roads. The cheapest one was owned by a guy named Micah. He said I could use the road for 10% of my paycheck. The road didn’t go near the bank so I had to leave my car a mile away from the bank and walk. I didn’t want to violate the nonaggression principle but I had to walk across several people’s property. Some of them didn’t mind me walking across their property but one guy Kennedy got out his shotgun and fired a few rounds of at me. A guy named Constant didn’t mind if I went across his land but tried to get me in a big debate but I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. A guy named Scott sounded real profound, talking in riddles. He charged only 5% of my paycheck to cross his land.
When I finally got to the bank there was more than one of them, each giving out different kinds of money. I skipped the Confederate Bank of America, when I heard printing presses running out inside. I was told that gold coins were the only safe money so I went to the Gold Standard Bank. It said its money was backed by gold. They gave me paper money that they said was good for portions of gold bars they said they kept in their vault. They wouldn’t show me the gold bars.
When I got outside I found several burley men who said I needed a shoe shine. They would only charged 20% of my paycheck. I said I didn’t need a shoeshine so one of the men beat me with a crowbar and took my money. A guy named Arthur came by and I begged him to call an ambulance, which he did even though he made it clear that he would no obligation to do so. When the ambulance arrived the driver asked to see my wallet, which was now empty. Then he got mad and left after getting my address, so he could bill me for the service call.
I was able to drag myself back into the bank and the teller let me make a few phone calls. I called the private police department, the private prosecutor and judge who checked their books and found out that the thugs who had beaten me had not signed up for the private court system in town and hence were not under their jurisdiction. The cops said they would take my credit card number and come out and investigate, but the thugs had stolen it. They said that was too bad.
Finally I dragged myself back to my car but it had been stolen. Eventually I crawled home and phoned my boss, saying I wouldn’t be in for work tomorrow until I got better and got some money for a cab fare to work. He said I was fired.

I drove to the bank on a

I drove to the bank on a road. Since there are no taxes there were two
private roads. The cheapest one was owned by a guy named Micah. He said
I could use the road for 10% of my paycheck.

When I was a small child, knowing nothing about economics, I often wondered why medical doctors charged so much for their services and were so rich. I concluded that there must be some collusion going on (and, in a certain sense, I was right, though not in the way I thought): all the doctors must get together at medical conventions and agree that they will all overcharge by $X for their services and they will all be rich as a result.

What didn't occur to me is: Why not overcharge by $X + $Y instead of only overcharging by $X? What prevents one doctor from reneging on the collusion and getting more business as a result? Why does this collusion only happen with medical doctors but not grocery stores or lawn maintenance companies?

Later, in high school, I took a course in basic microeconomics and learned the answers to these questions. I learned that, in the presence of competition, prices tend to be pushed down to the marginal cost of producing one additional unit, and that the presence of profits above the usual rate of return for investments of similar risk tends to attract new entrants into the market, increasing supply and decreasing price.

So to tie this all back in to your statement, if there are two private roads, both of which can take you where you want to go, what conditions are there that make the cheapest user fee 10% of your paycheck? Why doesn't the owner of the other road offer you the right to use his road for 9% of your paycheck? Or 8%? or 7%? Why would the profit maximizing price ever be 10% in even a monopolistic market, let alone a competitive one? The higher the price charged, the less frequently you will choose to use the road. Why would any smart monopolist charge a price above the price at which profit is maximized?

The rest of your parable demonstrates a similar lack of understanding of basic economic principles, common law concepts such as easements, and insurance theory. (e.g. "the thugs who had beaten me had not signed up for the private court system in town and hence were not under their jurisdiction." You are the customer of the private protection agency, not the accused violator. The private protection agency has jurisdiction over anyone who violates one of its clients' rights. If it wasn't willing to go after people outside its customer base, no one would hire them.)

The Road to Nowhere


True, all parables obscure truths by oversimplifying and ignoring other truths. In the case of roads one of the first necessities that occur when a town begins to get heavily populated is to have the powers that be, in most cases the city elders, layout the town into rectangular grids. This is not done according to libertarian theory but is a political decision as are numerous decisions concerning how we live. It is better to have people vote on how they want these things done than other alternatives. If everyone could do anything he wanted there would be chaos. I agree that you ignore economic principles at you peril but that does not show that economics is everything.


In the case of roads you would have the incentive to cherry pick the most desirable rout. This may not lead directly to the bank or other businesses as an organized grid which was systematically laid out by the government. There is certainly room for toll roads but I have never heard of two toll roads competing by price.


The problem I see with libertarianism, a basically good idea, is when it is promoted as a do all concept. The more rabid promoters think that you can postulate one big concept and given sufficiently large a dose of tortured logic derive a perfect system. This might also be called the philosopher’s fallacy. It is a fun game to play but invariably leads nowhere, least of all to agreement among the participants just what we are to agree upon in principle.


The more libertarian theory is bent to serve all public needs the more it becomes just another coercive political system, so what is the sense in trying to do away entirely with the public sector which does a fair job of solving some practical problems?


Libertarianism doesn't aim

Libertarianism doesn't aim to be practical it aims to be just. If you want to contribute money to governments so that they lay out cities in nice rectangular grids, go ahead I will not stop you.

(And by the way what's so great with a rectangular layout?)

Dave, I'm not going to get


I'm not going to get into a long discussion about the law and economics of private roads in this thread. If that is an issue that interests people, we can start another thread to discuss it. All I wanted to point out here is that, on your parable's own terms, set by you, there is no reason to think that in a case of two competing roads, one road owner will be able to (or want to) charge a price far above what even a profit maximizing monopoly would charge, without the risk of the second road owner undercutting the first.

As for city planning, I currently live in a city (Atlanta) that is not layed out in rectangular grids. I've lived in and visited many cities that are grid like, and many that are not. I think it's simply false to claim that this is a "first necessity" of city planning. The notion of city planning itself is a misnomer; many cities (most?) are not planned at all, but grow in an organic fashion. There are often no "city elders" making Big Important Decisions beforehand; nobody knows or even expects a city to become a city until long after it happens.

I do not claim that letting markets function will lead to perfect, ideal results. But neither do governments lead to perfect, ideal results. The relevant question is, given market failure and government failure, which failure is worse? The next time you are waiting in traffic for hours on a road planned, owned, and operated by government, ask yourself that question.

Natural Rights and Utilitarianism

I also commented on this blog post on my blog here. The confusing part about the post is the funny mixture of natural rights arguments with institutional framework. Normative language is used, but then utilitarian justification is superimposed.