Natural rights nonsense

Hang around libertarians and you’ll soon hear someone declare that “taxation is theft”, or that tax is money “extorted over the barrel of the gun”.

The natural rights argument against tax runs something like this:

  1. I own my body
  2. Therefore, I own the product of my labour.
  3. The initiation of force against property is theft.
  4. Therefore, taxation is theft.

Setting aside the logic of the above argument, let’s consider a hypothetical situation where tax is organised through voluntary contract.

The setting is Libertopia; there’s no tax and all services including the military, police and courts are provided by privately run firms. Along comes GuvCorp who starts buying land and leasing it to Libertopians with an unusual set of terms: Rather than paying a fixed rent each month, tenants are instead charged a percentage of their income. Furthermore, GuvCorp reserves the right to pass laws governing the social and economic conduct of tenants while they remain on the lease. GuvCorp stipulates that the terms of the lease may be changed at any time, provided a two-thirds majority of shareholders agree to the change. GuvCorp undertakes to provide various social services as well as to defend tenants from non-GuvCorp coercion.

Tenants may break the lease only be leaving GuvCorp land.

Over time, land leased out by our hypothetical corporation proves highly popular and it expands its property portfolio to the point where it owns large contiguous blocks of Libertopia. A thousand years pass and GuvCorp now owns all the land in Libertopia and has ceased to act like a corporation. Instead, it acts like a government; it issues passports, collects tax and regulates business. Sadly, the income tax rate is 95%, alcohol is prohibited, and it takes years to to start a business. All firearms are prohibited.

Residents are required to sign a GuvCorp lease upon reaching the age of 18. Failure to do so results in the immediate expulsion of the individual from GuvCorp property and hence from the country.

Would Natural Rights Libertarians accept the above situation? Of course not! They’d still brandish their copies of Atlas Shrugged, claim ownership of their labour and denounce GuvCorp taxation.

The point of the above is that Natural Rights Libertarians miss what’s important when they reduce liberty to a series of dogmatic axioms like “the right to bear arms”, “it’s wrong to initiate force against person or property” and “freedom of contract”.
Australia emerged from coercion and the theft of Aboriginal land 200 years ago while GuvCorp emerged and operates entirely through voluntary contract. Yet despite its coercive foundations and statist operation, Australia would be the preferred home of most libertarians. This is because it delivers the lived experience of human liberty rather than adherence to libertarian axioms. Voluntary contracts and property rights are only good insofar as they promote human freedom and wellbeing.

They are not ends in themselves.

131 thoughts on “Natural rights nonsense

  1. Hard to see what you’re proving here. I take it the idea is that GuvCorp has a monopoly of landowning which originated in the popularity of its superior services. But now after centuries it has cornered the market, there are no competitors, so it is able to impose illiberal terms?

    Do I have it right?

    In that case, would not the justification of government-like monopoly only apply where there was an actual monopoly that had originated in consent?

    This does not seem to apply to actual governments.

  2. In natural rights Libertopia, how does Guvcorp come to ‘own’ large contiguous blocks of land, are we living in a ecumenopolis?

  3. My point was that adherence to libertarian dogma can lead to a lousy place to live. and hence libertarian principles are of only second-order importance.

    I’m happy that everyone gets taxed to pay for national defense. I’m happy that everyone gets taxed to pay for a social safety-net.

    The best society is not necessarily the one with the least “coercion”.

  4. Most libertarians that I know are consequentialists and whilst they will use natural rights arguments they don’t rely on them. In the hypothetical situation described I’d argue for liberty.

  5. #2: They bought off others on the market. As each piece of property was generating positive cashflows they were able to buy more property.

    I agree the above scenario is not likely, but it is possible, and that’s good enough to illustrate my argument.

  6. Just a thought: GuvCorp would be shafted by a bunch of downshifting capitalist hippies. They wouldn’t receive any monetary income!

    “it’s wrong to initiate force against person or property”

    I find that very difficult to argue against. I don’t see how this can ever be wrong, paticularly if we use your above example, starting from the start and tracing rights and obligations back to the first contract.

    “Voluntary contracts and property rights are only good insofar as they promote human freedom and wellbeing.

    They are not ends in themselves.”

    I always bring the issue up over this, that property rights exist simply because they are a utilitarian social convention. The real issue is that they have been observed occuring where there was more or less, anarchy. Yes I agree they are a mean to achieve certain ends. But, they are a highly conditional mean towards better outcomes.

    I don’t think philiosophy is the right way to go about this. Economics, paticularly economic history has some interesting lessons about minimising the role of Governemnt in society or how small Government can get, or what role voluntary donations can play (even with public goods such as the large proportion of donations to early US conflicts against European powers). Even the argument about taxation being theft is trumped when we can dismiss with good evidence the role of some services not as public goods but simply private goods that have been nationalised a very long time ago (e.g lighthouses).

    My philosophical input is meagre but I think it is important determining how we frame policy and potentially a charter of rights, or how courts should apply our protection of our rights. The issue about property goes to what might be best called individual sovereignty. If having 99% or 100% sovereignty is splitting hairs, we should at least recognise individual sovereignty over collective or state sovereignty.

    Likewise, a carbon mitigating tax isn’t necessarily against natural rights. We don’t have property rights over the atmosphere and this happening globally is doubtful unless it is done by homesteading and Governemnts grudgingly accepting the homesteaders. I think one day we might have such rights, but not for a long time. It has taken a very long time for what are effectively real property rights over land to be applied to water and watercourses.

  7. Terje, in my experience many claim to be consequentialists but when an example of positive government intervention arises they fall back to “taxation is theft”.

  8. Although, I don’t think tax is theft, extortion is a more apt analogy.

    Happy to pay for defence? Yes. But how much of it can be outsouced, privateered or funded by donations? I’m not to happy either when we get stuck with a lot of the junk the Liberal Party bough.

    David D Freidman shows an example of how anarcho capitalism might provide a defence force on Hawaii in his book, machinery of freedom. It is a very well argued point.

    Happy to pay for welfare? No. The system is terrible. It needs both a reduction in EMTRs, poverty traps and at the same time to be off limits for those who don’t need it.

    A safety net may even be necessary (perhaps I’ll admit I was wrong in a few decades time) but with 1/3 of natural resources in the hands of Government, many unecessary restrictions on operating a business and nationalised business operations, it begs the question, could we not buy out pensions and otherwise end welfare in return for a massive auctioning off of public lands and gifting of shares in Governemnt owned business enterprises?

    Then if it is necessary after the potential stinginess of philantrhopy and if this doesn’t create incentives for the poor, should we have a safety net.

    Does social security crowd out genuine, market based unemployment insurance?

  9. That is to say the proceeds of auctioning off non-packagable public goods that can’t be gifted as corporations would be given directly back as cash proceeds.

  10. “I find that very difficult to argue against. I don’t see how this can ever be wrong, paticularly if we use your above example, starting from the start and tracing rights and obligations back to the first contract.”

    So if tax went to 100%, you think it would be wrong for the citizens to rise up against GuvCorp?

  11. If it went over about 70%, I doubt there would be very few citizens of Libertopia. Rome tried it with far smaller (but proportionally larger) tax increases, and it is one of the reasons why Diocleatian’s reforms actually weakened the Empire: marginal allies and Gallic citizens simply hopped over the border and became non-Romans.

    If you want to split hairs, you cannot make contracts with the unborn. A lease must have valid, not unspecified terms, at common law. Furthermore, you are ignoring the incnetives people have to become shareholders.

    Quasi Government may actually involve over share ownership, where the firm would merely become the bureacracy.

    There’s no reason why a competitor or alliance of competitors would see them as a threat to their client’s liberty quite rightly, and invade and depose them.

    Otherwise, you seem to be arguing for natural rights – which is one of very few ways out of the straightjacket you’ve argued me into.

  12. Your argument seems to be we should have natural rights since they can very slowly lead to bad outcomes in a very, very loosely hypothetical situation.

    Without the recognition of any natural rights, we can be relegated to the dustbin of history in days, weeks or months.

    I prefer otpion 1.

  13. I’m arguing for human freedom and utility – without ideological “straightjackets”.

    And yeah, freedom and utility are vague.

  14. Basically, any foundation theory of rights can be twisted to create a GuvCorp type scenario.

    That’s why foundation theories of rights or “natural rights” are a poor basis for a political philosophy.

  15. As managing director of Libertaria, bordering you, I always knew you Libertopian fascist bastards would come to no good.

    Look where you are now, all of your best and most productive people have migrated here, and all you are left with are those who would sacrifice liberty for the ‘security’ of not having to venture. You now have a third world economy, as there is no incentive to produce what with your 95% tax, you have bugger all people interested in your terms, nobody wants to live or move there, you have a huge debt, and I am about to launch a takeover bid.

    Your military wont help you, our agents have talked to them. It was a piece of piss, we just told them of our better conditions over here and they are just waiting to get rid of you. If in fact some of them try something my people are free to arm themselves to the teeth and have done so and formed militias to deal with them.

    You are stuffed mate.

  16. How would GuvCorp acquire 100% of land with such a bad contract? Your example requires that that every single adult (and not simply a majority) voluntarily give up all these rights, and therefore have no reason to complain.

    They wouldn’t, and we didn’t. Taxation is theft.

  17. Jim – No doubt that’s how it would work out but once you’ve used consequentialist arguments to defend natural rights you don’t have much left, do you?

    Justin – suppose the contract terms were good initially but deteriorated over time. But that’s not the point of the post: is GuvCorp’s taxation theft or not? Yes or no?

  18. Johnz.

    Taxation IS!!!!!!!!! theft.

    It is theft due to the law of identity. A thing is what it is. So taxation is in fact theft. For you to pretend that taxation is not theft amounts to flat out lying and obvious lying at that.

    There is no use lying about taxation not being theft. Because it obviously is theft and this is merely a psychological barrier you are going to have to get over.

    Now if taxation is theft is it always bad?

    Well thats an whole other question.

    Taxation is ALWAYS theft but it isn’t always necessarily bad. Some amount of it can be good in the short-run if it is the only thing which can prevent a catastrophe.

    One day perhaps we will have private defense. But that might be too hard to sort out this half-century when the need to find ways to avoid nuclear intimidation is still with us.

    Hence for the moment some level of taxation might be necessary if the things that taxation is spent on are necessary to ward off catastrophe or the loss of sovereignty due to nuclear intimidation.

    But taxation is always theft. And there is simply no point in you lying about this point.

  19. John, if Jim’s Libertopia had been founded on natural rights, then it is a good argument. My own preference would be for public properties to be owned and run by the citizens, who also time-share the Government jobs. All fees would be voluntary, so any involuntary payment, like taxation, would be extortion or theft. You said you would be happy to pay for various features of civil society, so what’s your beef?

  20. “Tenants may break the lease only be leaving GuvCorp land.”

    Hmmm I assume the analogy refers to the ‘political contract’ said to exist in all democratic societies. Theoretically in today’s world of strict migration controls, while I am free to leave Australia, I don’t really have anywhere to go as migration restrictions prevent me from easily attaining permanent residency in another nation. Wouldn’t this theoretically put people in my in my position in society in a revolutionary situation? For I can’t be considered “free to leave” if I’m not free to arrive anywhere else…

    Just a thought.

  21. Nick, if the justification for “natural rights” is that they deliver good outcomes, then they become mere conventions that maximise utility over time rather than “rights”.
    As soon as one of these conventions is found wanting then we can toss it out and find another.

    Makes statements like “extorted over the barrel of a gun” sound a little hyperbolic, eh?

  22. Seb, that was my implication.

    There’s a free market of countries and libertarians are generally sceptical of complaints about “market failure” and anti-trust legislation so I have little sympathy for the “nowhere to go” complaint.

  23. Libertarians are sceptical about arguments about market failure…rightly so. I just read a HSC economics exam paper where the question incorrectly identifies a lack of property rights and a common pool problem of publicly provided, oversupplied resources as a failure of the market to adequetely provide a good or service. Of course we are sceptical. People are being taught this en masse.

    We should also be sceptical of all Government spending. Make it pass a CBA. Government failure is even worse than market failure, so any regulation should compensate losers much like just terms for compulsury acquisition of land.

    There isn’t a free market of countries to choose from, but that was your point, so you say the opposite?

    Please explain. Either that or tell me I am a moron!

    It would be sueful if we could define what natural rights are.

  24. Well that’s just it. The fact that the political contract is broken and I can get no redress for my grievances, and I wish to leave would imply that you, a fellow citizen not in my position, would not be sympathetic to my position.

    But the creation of this revolutionary situation, at least theoretically, could partially account for the heightened level of discontent in this country, therefore many of the social problems.

  25. Hey I know what? What if Z has this daydream about one company buying up all the food production. And then denying people food.

    That would then be a decisive blow against natural law in Z’s idiotic logic. That would make natural law akin to the forced starvation of millions of Soviet peasants under Stalin.

    Proof via Z’s dystopian daydreams.

  26. Hypotheticals aside… I am currently an Australian resident, I never entered a contract with AustGov and I currently am required to pay tax. The tax is not voluntary.

    There are only three reasons that people obey other humans. Either (1) they agree that the requested action is a good idea; (2) they are being threatened; or (3) they accept that the order comes from somebody with legitimate authority over their life.

    Personally, I believe that each person has the ultimate authority over their lives (ie self-ownership).

    Therefore, I will obey somebody (including the government) only if I agree with them or if they threaten me. With tax, it is because of the threat.

    Your hypothetical is great. In a libertarian world I’m sure that thousands of GovCorp-type organisations would be started, ranging from 100-person communes to million-person tech-cities to religious “homelands” to walled towns to eco-friendly tent villages etc etc. Some areas would undoubtably remain outside any “commune”, or join more relaxed associations. Some people may experiment with socialism. Ah — they joys of diversity.

    You could worry about the threat of one person buying all the land in Australia. Some people seem to like worrying. But that is so unlikely you may as well worry about the possibility of an evil superman destroying the world by throwing the moon at it. 🙂

    I would prefer to consider real political issues.

    Liberty may not be an “end in itself” for your life, but if that’s true then I feel sorry for you. It is important for me. Indeed, I believe individual autonomy is central to being human and giving it up is tantamount to “suicide of the soul”. It’s a complaint I have against some religions too. Very unfortunate. Luckily for you, a libertarian world would find space for soul-less people, as well as autonomous people.

    (could you fix the editing & font please)

  27. “The tax is not voluntary.”

    John, is being forced to pay at a restaurant when you haven’t signed a contract coercive? Didn’t think so. Implicit contracts are still contracts.

    But anyway, social contract theory has its own problems. Also these foundation theories break down when you look closely enough. Besides, I thought you claimed to be a consequentialist?

    Hmm, I just viewed the page in IE and I see what you mean about the font – it looks normal in firefox. I will investigate. As for the editing, what exactly concerns you?

  28. There is no implicit contract between me and the government. I do what they say because of the consequences of disobeying. A contract requires offer, consideration & acceptence. All exist with a restaurant (even when not stated). With the government’s so-called implicit contract there is no consideration nor acceptence by me.

    I am a consequentialist. But that doesn’t mean I believe in suicide of the soul. I recognise that the government is coercive… but I accept that freedom isn’t the only virtue, and therefore there may be cases when coercion can be justified because of the consequences.

    I don’t think my underlying metaphysics, epistomology and moral philosophy break down when you look at it. Indeed, I think they hold up pretty well. But I would say that… 🙂

  29. I think social contract theory is stronger than that. You have the means to leave the country and have done so on many occasions. Surely by coming back here you implicitly accept Australian law just as when you enter a restaurant you implicitly accept that you’ll have to pay the bill.

    Not sure what you mean by “suicide of the soul”. Freedom is just one of several moral goods and the “non-agression axiom” which underpins most libertarian thinking is not an axiom at all.

  30. Rather than paying a fixed rent each month, tenants are instead charged a percentage of their income. Furthermore, GuvCorp reserves the right to pass laws governing the social and economic conduct of tenants while they remain on the lease.

    That’s already what happens in Westfield and various other shopping centres. Tenants pay rent based on their turnover. The lease specifies opening hours, signage, promotional activities and various other activities by tenants.

    GuvCorp stipulates that the terms of the lease may be changed at any time, provided a two-thirds majority of shareholders agree to the change.

    Er, I don’t think anyone in their right mind would sign a lease incorporating that. Westfield sure as hell couldn’t get away with it.

    Over time, land leased out by our hypothetical corporation proves highly popular and it expands its property portfolio to the point where it owns large contiguous blocks of Libertopia.

    Westfield centres are successful, but they are hardly taking over the country. Retailers always have the option of setting up in a High Street location where the rent is fixed. It’s a competitive environment.

    I agree with John Humphreys. Diversity is inherent to free markets, and therefore to liberty.

    The natural rights argument is based on the proposition that rights are inherent and do not derive from government. Do you own your own property or is it held at the discretion of the government? If the former, taxation must be theft. If the latter, you are not free.

  31. My point was, originally, and tying into what David said is that natural rights exist (or mroe correctly, emerge), as social conventions with no Governmental action.

    In that way, rights are inherent in any social situation where outcomes attempt to be optimised.

    Being means not ends doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be vigourously defended.

    Perhaps it can be argued that they are both means and ends.

  32. I do have the means to leave the country. I’m on the beach in Cambodia now. That’s irrelevant.

    To accept that the Australian government has the right to make any laws it likes about us when we’re in australia is either to (1) accept their authority over your life (ie they own you); or (2) believe that the government owns all the land in Australia.

    I believe in self-ownership and private property rights.

    If I tell you that I will shoot you if you go in your own home… and you go into your own home… does that mean you have accepted some sort of contract that makes it legitimate for me to shoot you?

  33. No of course coming back here doesn’t mean you accept that Australian law is just fine. Notice how Z started off making non-arguments against anarcho-capitalism and now he’s making stupid arguments in favour of universal human slavery.

  34. That taxation is theft is simply and extension of the law of identity. A is A. All taxation is theft. But not all theft is taxation. Now we ought not pretend that the idiot and anti-logician Z has found any way to overule the law of identity, nor the subset superset relationship between taxation and theft.

    Supposing that we have two individuals X and Y. And they both agree that taxation is theft because they aren’t insane and they know that something is what it is.

    So while they are awake they both agree that taxation is theft. What happens next is that individual X goes to sleep and dreams about a dystopic world where someone gets an horrendous universal land monopoly. And then individual Y goes to sleep and dreams that Graeme Bird earns all the money in the world and now no bugger else has any money and Graeme Bird is swimming in it like Scrooge McDuck and everyone else starving.

    So then individuals X and Y both wake up from these horrible dreams. Supposing they are rational people? Does them having these dreams change the basic relationship between taxation and theft?

    No of course not. So lets not dignify the eternal idiocy of the hard-leftist Z with any sort of pretense that he has made any sort of argument at all against libertarianism. Because if land monopolies of this sort were even possible under anarcho-capitalism, that would merely be an argument for semi-Georgist minarchism. But they are not possible under anarcho-capitalism. They would be more difficult to put together than under current circumstances.

    This is without a doubt the most ridiculously idiotic line of argument that anyone has put on a threadstarter on this forum.

  35. The social contract is a perfidious lie used to justify the theft of people’s property by socialist governments. If everyone in your street votes to take your house away from you, does that make it just? They could, just as some on this thread are doing, argue that you have a “social contract” with your neighbours and if you don’t like it, you can exercise your right to leave the country. I think that’s the same argument Robert Mugabe might have used when he stole the farms of white farmers.

  36. “To accept that the Australian government has the right to make any laws it likes about us when we’re in australia is either to (1) accept their authority over your life (ie they own you); or (2) believe that the government owns all the land in Australia.”

    Or, you can accept that all theories of government and individual rights break down when examined closely enough. Only catch is that you can no longer declare that taxation is theft or appeal to other emotive slogans.

  37. Okay then look at the story behind the scenes. Natural rights emerge as a utilitarian social convention to maximise outcomes. I think it is compatible with consequentialist and natural rights arguments.

  38. In a free market, GuvCorp wouldn’t last more than a few months. Their pricing model discourages high income earners, who would have spent more on services anyway, from joining. With only low income earners as customers, GuvCorp’s profits will be extremely low and they will not have the capital to acquire new properties or implement their social services or defend their tenants. Eventually they will be bought out by a company that charges a fixed fee by service level.

  39. “Natural rights emerge as a utilitarian social convention to maximise outcomes.”

    That’s a contradiction in terms. For it to be a “natural right”, it should hold true in all places at all times, and not be dependent on current circumstances, as any honest consequentialist argument will be.

    Mark – is owning land on the other side of the planet that you’ve never seen a “natural right”?

  40. No, don’t say it is a contradiction in terms, prove it is.

    You’ve merely asserted that. Economic historians have shown that this phenomena happens.

    It’s your opinion v a body of peer reviewed evidence. You need to prove what you are saying.

    I am pretty sure in a North Korean gulag I don’t have any rights. I probably should have some. The fact that I don’t have rights but should have them does not make rights based arguments or claims to those rights dishonest. It certainly doesn’t make a consequentialist claim to them dishonest either.

  41. I agree that various forms of property rights emerge naturally. You see even see it in animals.

    a) If you derive your ethics from this you commit the is/ought fallacy.

    b) The types of property rights you see emerging generally do not include claims on land you’ve never even seen or a claim on cashflows of a company based on the other side of the planet. I’m not opposed to assigning property rights for these things, I just don’t think these “rights” are sacred laws of the universe.

  42. a) Ethics led people to choose property rights over violence. Either from a starting point they didn’t want to cheat people out of their claims or seeing they were better off in the long run. Perhaps both.

    b) Because they are utilitarian, they should be considered sacrosanct.

  43. Wrong, Mark. It’s not hard to conceive of situations where slavish devotion to contracts and property rights creates a nasty place to live. GuvCorp is such a situation.

    If values are utilitarian, then they are subject to re-evaluation every time circumstance change.

  44. “To accept that the Australian government has the right to make any laws it likes about us when we’re in Australia is either to (1) accept their authority over your life (ie they own you); or (2) believe that the government owns all the land in Australia.”

    I believe that the government owns all land in Australia.

    It stole the land and violently took hold of the land. But now the government owns the land.

    “If I tell you that I will shoot you if you go in your own home… and you go into your own home… does that mean you have accepted some sort of contract that makes it legitimate for me to shoot you?”

    What if you are the landlord of my home? So it is actually owned by you and leased by me? To whom do the private property rights belong in this case?

    Then what if I have a child (okay, so I’m a woman now…) If you are the landlord surely you’d expect the child to be bound by that contract too? But wait, didn’t you say before that a contract requires consideration? And you can’t be born into a contract? So does that mean a child born in a house I’m leasing isn’t subject to the terms of the lease?

    Assuming they ARE subject to the lease surely their only means of escaping the lease is leaving the property? Now say the “property” is the entirety of Australia. Which is owned by GuvCorp and parts of it are leased to different groups and individuals.

    The GuvCorp model, while unrealistic, is a philosophical model that shows why anarcho-capitalism does not intrinsically maximise utility or freedom. Anarcho-capitalism, even with the existence of private property rights theoretically can lead to a worse situation than social democracy. At least in social democracy the people can hold the government accountable- in the GuvCorp example only the shareholders have that power.

    Personally I think in the real world there is an implicit social contract which at the least says “when you buy land from the government you are actually indefinitely leasing it- the government still has the final say over what you can do on your leased land”.

    I don’t think JohnZ’s point is about ideology. Correct me if I’m wrong, but is your point that any ideology can be shown to be flawed? That’s what I got out of it. I think it is important to focus on outcomes and maximising them. The government, sometimes, can provide the most practical outcomes. A government with good intentions is better than a monopolistic corporation with bad intentions.

    As for “tax is theft” well, I think morally theft is sometimes justified. If government is today’s Robin Hood then more power to it (not literally :p).

  45. I don’t think JohnZ’s point is about ideology. Correct me if I’m wrong, but is your point that any ideology can be shown to be flawed?

    More that any ideology based on the assertion of a set of absolute rights is going to lead to contradictions or situations which we don’t like.

    Once you accept this, “taxation is theft” sounds like shrill nonsense.

  46. Natural rights accrue from nature. What happens in nature? If you have the strength, you can do what you want. (I don’t imagine that herbivores consent to be eaten by carnivores!) In my volunteer society, all of the citizenry could be armed against aggression, so I imagine that this would be as natural as you could get, and therefore ‘right’.

  47. But it hasn’t yet taken away all guns, so it knows we can fight back if it gets too pushy. And armed criminals (rockets anyone?) keep showing that we could get guns if we really wanted to.

  48. the assertion of a set of absolute rights is going to lead to contradictions or situations which we don’t like

    JohnZ, you were the one who constructed that proposition. Even Graeme Bird says that despite taxation being theft, it might not be invariably bad. Who are you arguing against here?

    But tell me – if rights are not ‘natural’ does that mean we don’t have any unless the government grants them to us? A Hobbesian world, no less?

  49. JohnZ, you were the one who constructed that proposition. Even Graeme Bird says that despite taxation being theft, it might not be invariably bad. Who are you arguing against here?

    That line of reasoning amounts to little more than definition hijacking and word games. If taxation is “theft” then it’s unlike any other form of “theft” I and most other people have seen. Rather than overload a perfectly good word with an additional meaning, we invented a perfectly good one: “tax” which captures the distinction perfectly and without ambiguity.
    Of course, the reason libertarians equate the two words is because “theft” is emotive and it’s a standard trick to extend the definition of something negative and emotive word to encompass something else you don’t like.
    Incidentally, word games of that sort are one of L. Ron Hubbard’s favourite tricks.

    But tell me – if rights are not ‘natural’ does that mean we don’t have any unless the government grants them to us? A Hobbesian world, no less?

    If I assert that the government grants rights we’ll have the same problem – contradictions or the conclusion that a society like GuvCorp’s is acceptable.

  50. How can you jump from GuvCorp issuing voluntary contracts, to then regulating business, simply because 1000 years have passed?

    Either the law protects individual rights or it doesn’t. You’re implying a genuine individual rights based society is impossible but don’t explain why. I acknowledge that the US system failed, but not that failure is inevitable, especially when you consider that only a tiny proportion of people in the history of the earth have understood individual/natural rights theory.

    Your last sentence says, “Voluntary contracts and property rights are only good insofar as they promote human freedom and wellbeing”.
    That’s true, these legal principles are ends to apply ethics to society (ie: politics) but you seem to think they won’t work simply because they are principles or simple rules?!
    You don’t even offer an alternative – I’d like to see you offer a hypothetical where legal principles such as property rights would fail to be ethical.

    Ethics, law and politics are sciences. Principles can be identified, like scientific principles. Once identified and verified, these principles should be implemented and they will not be obsoleted just because new information arises. eg/ quantum mechanics didn’t render Newtonian physics obsolete. eg/ Property rights crimes (legal science) such as theft, murder, trespass will always be wrong.

    I think a system of voluntary taxation would be surprisingly easy to implement especially if we focused on paying for police, courts, military and left education, health, water and other services to the private sector. I don’t think “Taxation is theft” sounds like “shrill nonsense” just because you think it does.

    Also, John, your principles are not “axioms”. An axiom cannot be proved but is self evident. The three principles you list are all provable and are higher level concepts, not axioms. You yourself offer lower level proofs at the start of your post.

    Your post is generally quite vague. Are you saying principles are impossible generally? or that one giant monopoly will be created in a free market leading to situations we “don’t like”? Or that ethical principles will always be violated by humans and that this violation will be of such a high order that ethical principles will never last?
    Once you make your ideas more clear, maybe you can back them up with some examples and/or theory.

  51. “If values are utilitarian, then they are subject to re-evaluation every time circumstance change.”

    No, propery rights emerged as a non Government granted (and hence natural) right since they were utilitarian. They are everywhere. Even the Aboriginies were traders, wars were fought over property disputes.

    They used property and the concept of property gave their traditional lands some value they thought was worth protecting from other rivals.

  52. Thats the other thing. Are you worried about the extent of land-monopoly? Do you think there is a problem in this department? So then the argument would be that while we still need SOME taxes we would want to slowly edge up the land value tax. And the argument would be also to get rid of this counterfeiting and socialist money. Since its weak money that leads to great land holdings.

    But you aren’t interested in these practical matters to head off a fear of land monopoly. You are just interested in constructing idiotic and tendentious wordgames. Kicked off with the most idiotic lie imagineable that taxation isn’t theft. But taxation is theft because thats what it is. If your argument requires you to lie outright then its a stupid argument.

    In fact there is no argument here which goes against libertarianism at all. Libertarianism involves SOME taxes. So you are too idiotic to even know what it is you are arguing against.

  53. a) Just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s “right”. This is called the is/ought fallacy.

    b) The fact that something was utilitarian in the past doesn’t mean it will continue to be so. The aborigines had brutal tribal punishments, in part this probably because they didn’t have alternatives to jails. What worked then doesn’t necessarily work now. What works now won’t necessarily work in the future.

  54. Can anyone make any sense at all out of this ?

    “Yet despite its coercive foundations and statist operation, Australia would be the preferred home of most libertarians. This is because it delivers the lived experience of human liberty rather than adherence to libertarian axioms. Voluntary contracts and property rights are only good insofar as they promote human freedom and wellbeing.”

    Whats the point here ? Australia is the preferred home of most libertarians seems like an unfounded conclusion. What the hell is “delivering the experience of human liberty” ?

    Would slavery in Africa deliver the experience of human liberty ?

  55. ARGH DAMN TAGS.. Can anyone make any sense at all out of this ?

    “Yet despite its coercive foundations and statist operation, Australia would be the preferred home of most libertarians. This is because it delivers the lived experience of human liberty rather than adherence to libertarian axioms. Voluntary contracts and property rights are only good insofar as they promote human freedom and wellbeing.”

    Whats the point here ? Australia is the preferred home of most libertarians seems like an unfounded conclusion. What the hell is “delivering the experience of human liberty” ?

    Would slavery in Africa deliver the experience of human liberty ?

  56. Yeah, Jono, it’s like Clive Hamilton’s desire to give everyone ‘more authentic living’ by doing away with free trade and personal choice. We’d be better off, you see, if we didn’t make rational choices to maximise these things…………well, you probably can’t see because you’re an inferior libertarian type, but just trust JohnZ and Clive, they’ll give you ‘more authentic living’ and the ‘lived experience of human liberty’ – through government force, of course – in ways you aren’t capable of achieving yourself.

    Why is this fool (JohnZ) posting on this site anyway, and why isn’t anyone defending negative natural rights? I understand our ‘purist’ style libertarians get a little confused from time to time, but this is ridiculous.

  57. a) Well Z all I was arguing was that under *your* definition, property rights have been seen to be observed emerging naturally, without Government grant, and hence are natural rights. What makes them “right” or “correct” i.e proper is they have utilitarian consequences and the fact that they emerge from non-coercive determinants. There is no ought /is fallacy. The way property rights emerge is simply unfortunate for your argument that absolute property rights are “shrill”.

    The fact that they do emerge peacefully, voluntarily and maximise outcomes DOES make them right.

    Perhaps you would like to argue in favour of violence, coercion and sub-optimal outcomes?

    b) Now this truly is the ought/is fallacy on your behalf and shows what an awfully sloppy attempt your last response was in trying to rebutt an argument. Who is to say Aboriginal tribal punishments were utilitarian? Unlike property, which they traded and benfitted from, you cannot falsify the usefulness or effectiveness of such conventions.

    You’ve constructed a fantastic story with a lot of hypotheticals and fallacious simplifying assumptions – yet the conclusion is that natural rights are the last defence to your dystopian vision and slow down any slide towards that kind of hell and are the best way of resisting such a downward progression.

    Just what is your point exactly?

  58. Okay I re read your article. My question wasn’t rhetorical…

    “Voluntary contracts and property rights are only good insofar as they promote human freedom and wellbeing.

    They are not ends in themselves.”

    But previously, you said we couldn’t judge the usefulness of things on a utilitarian basis as “circumstances change”.

    Really? When does property and contracts become useless or worse? I’d like to point out again even a “landless” culture like the Aboriginies had property and benefitted from it, they even traded their property with others.

    So it goes back to my point…rights we have observed as natural are correct because of their voluntary, peaceful nature and optimal outcomes.

    I’d agree with you if you could show me when:

    1. Such circumstances change – when is property and other natural rights useless or worse?

    2. What is the better alternative to naturally socially emergent, peaceful, non-coercive and outcome maximising natural rights?

    3. What is the better alternative to natural rights if they are the only way out of GuvCorp’s oppression and generally as a cinder block in the way of such backsliding?

    Your argument seems just to reinforce that you prefer minarchy to anarchy. I think we can end up somehwere in the middle.

  59. Australia is the preferred home of most libertarians seems like an unfounded conclusion. What the hell is “delivering the experience of human liberty” ?

    Your revealed preference is to stay in Australia.
    Look around you Jono – we have more freedom than almost any other society in history. That doesn’t mean we can’t do better: we pay too much tax, there are too many regulations on business, too many restrictions on what we can do with our bodies. Nevertheless, Australia is still a great place to live, and far better than any GuvCorp dystopia which is based purely on voluntary contract.

  60. But previously, you said we couldn’t judge the usefulness of things on a utilitarian basis as “circumstances change”.

    Where did I say that? What I said was that any conclusions we reach from a utilitarian calculation are subject to review.

    Basically I think there are things which we prefer to happen (more peace, less tax etc), but none of these are absolute in all cases and so dogmatism of the “extortion over the barrel of a gun” type is pointless.

  61. Pingback: Club Troppo » Missing Link Daily

  62. Further to comment 52:

    The derivation of natural rights listed in the post is wrong. Because by the logic of 1) “owning your body”, any organism such as parasitic bacteria would have property rights.

    According to Ayn Rand’s objectivism as I understand it, individual rights come from the fact that we are capable of and need to use volition.
    At an early age, we learn introspection and concept formation (a way to group units by generalisation ie: ommitting specifics and finding common denominators), and basic reasoning and logic. We deduce concepts and reduce these heirachially to fundamental concepts or principles, in order to automate our knowledge to free up our minds to gain more knowledge.
    It is the reality of the make up of our brains that leads to the need for formation of ethical principles and to apply these to society – politics and legal science.

    NB/ Although reality is metaphysically separate from our minds (eg/: we don’t have telekinetic powers) and although many people these days and throughout history do not engage their cognitive faculties much – neither of these facts changes the reality that humans do have volition, introspection and concept formation, and that these faculties are necessary for both survival and long term happiness.

  63. John Z, are you someone who thinks ethics was developed through evolution, ie: over millions of years when humans were like chimpanzees?

    This is a common basis for theories of ethics going around at the moment, popular amongst Richard Dawkins style atheists.
    Personally, I think these theories forget volition, something that presumably is not that old compared to the human species.
    But this approach to ethics in my experience usually leads to a subjectivist approach to ethics – which I strongly suspect you have.

  64. Dear Tim R., you should get out and about more!
    Reality is not separate from our minds- the non-locality aspect of modern physics tells us this. Therefore, telepathy is not intrinsically impossible, as we understand physics today. (Ayn Rand would have hated Quantum mechanics, if she had ever come across it!) By extension, if you can send a message, you might be able to send energy (telekinesis).
    And science these days talks about dark energy, a form of matter which doesn’t interact with light, but which acts like a very fine grade of matter, and surrounds the galaxies and keeps them together. I hate to tell you this, but the Theosophists, with their claims of astral matter, were there first!
    You should read more widely.

  65. I agree John!

    It’s just like that Microsoft. Everyone has to buy their products because they’ve designed them to be interoperable only with themselves and then shafted us!

    Like greedy corporations like starbucks forcing out the competition with unfair capitalism.

    Is John on ALS blog for the same reason that Miranda Devine is with the Silly Morning Herald?

    Part of the Libertarian MORALITY is Individual responsibility. Even if for some ridiculous reason guvcorp managed to buy all the land (I’m assuming you mean in the world as if we had an alternative we could just nick off?) then all it would take would be for everyone to decide that enough is enough and refuse to work. Refuse to produce. That would be the end of the guvcorp monopoly.

    The main point is individual responsibility. It’s no use turning on the Libertopia tap with everyones minds in the Statist gutter. We would all simply just opt in to a crappy statist system once again. To achieve a lasting free and open society people need to accept it through their own free will. That’s why I do my activism at the pub rather than the parliament.

  66. Tim R, yes, I’d say our innate feelings of “right and wrong” come from evolution.

    I have no idea how “volition” (whatever they might mean) is supposed to confer individual rights. Then again, if it Ayn Rand said it then it probably doesn’t make a lot of sense.

    Mark said: show me where the concept of property isn’t universally useful.

    It’s not a question of whether property in general is useful, but where the boundaries are.

    Can I blast my stereo system 24hrs a day and keep my neighbours awake?
    Can I plant noxious weeds on my property that will overrun everyone else’s garden?
    To what extent am I allowed to rip off someone else’s trademark to sell my own product?
    Am I allowed to sell copies of Microsoft’s software for $2 a pop?

    There is no “natural” answer to these questions. Welcome to society.

  67. The problem with this analogy is that “guvcorp” didn’t acquire its property by purchasing it. It stole it, extorted it, murdered the original owners and continues to do it until this very day.

    And that doesn’t just go for aboriginal land either. The government still steals land at gunpoint from citizens now.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Section_51(xxxi)_of_the_Australian_Constitution

    And of course there’s also the small fact that you don’t have to own or lease or live on land owned by guvcorp to be subject to guvcorp’s laws.

    In fact there are certain Australian laws that apply to you even if you live on Mars.

  68. Johnz,

    You may play your music 24 hours a day, unless you’ve bought property with a covenant covering fair use that excludes blasting your neighbours away. A free market solution to covenants and local by-laws could exist.

    You can plant noxious weeds on your property, but if they subsequently damage a neighbours property, you may be sued for negligence in the same way that letting your pet dog eat the neighbour’s chickens would result in legal action.

    Trademarks have no basis in natural law. However, branding is useful for both consumer and supplier. You could rip off a trademark, but you’d still be liable for product quality. The ability to profit from ripping off trademarks would be short lived, as your consumers get savy to your knock-offs. Doing away with the dead weight cost of intellectual property law would benefit everyone except the lawyers.

    You could sell dodgy copies of Microsoft software, but Microsoft would be under no obligation to provide support services. This is a problem for all software and content providers, they’ve spent oodles of money trying to protect their content, rather than innovate in revenue models for easily reproduced content.

  69. In reality with homesteading as the only way to fence off and gain title to property, and with free enterprise money, the idea of somebody buying up all the land is a ridiculous fantasy. Of course its a ridiculous fantasy even under our own flawed system. Much more silly under natural law.

    It just the most stupid idea imagineable. Its akin to worrying about one individual earning all the money and the others having none. Land monopoly implies a past history of THE DENIAL OF NATURAL RIGHTS. Like in Pakistan or something.

    So he’s trying to come up with an argument AGAINST natural rights based on a fantasy that implies the NEGATION of natural rights. Even saying this all is to put upon his idiotic performance implied praise thats not warranted.

    We have here a lunatic who never even had an argument against either libertarianism or natural law and yet still he keeps going. He doesn’t CARE that he’s been proved to be without any such argument.

    The fact is I smashed the pretense that he had made such an argument to smithereens and yet you check back here and he hasn’t admitted he is wrong.

    We don’t need to let marxists and people this dishonest in the party. They simply will get in the way. To show how he didn’t have an argument in the first place is very easy.

    The daydreams of idiots constitute no argument against natural law at any time.

    But we have to keep going over this bullshit until JohnZ admits that he hasn’t even come up with an argument:

    Imagine if you daydreamed that one outfit alone bought up all the toilet makers and the makers of toilet paper. And then they denied it to us and therefore every bugger got cholera?

    An argument against natural law and libertarianism?

    I think not. The daydreams of Z are not an argument against natural law or libertarianism.

    Lets go over it again for the truly stupid:

    1. He puts up a feeble argument against anarcho-capitalism.

    2. Its such a fucking feeble argument its laughable. But supposing we accepted it:

    3. If we accepted Z’s feeble argument it would merely wind up as being an argument in favour of semi-Georgist minarchism.

    4. Since semi-Goergist minarchism comes under the libertarian/natural rights orbit the stupid, repulsive leftst girlyman has in fact no argument at all.

    Is Z in fact arguing for semi-Georgist-Minarchism on the basis of imminent land monopoly?

    Because as stupid an argument as that would be it would still be the only argument he made.

    We cannot have proven idiots and bullshitartists like this fellow around. He’s just going to get in the way with everything we do. Imagine having this fellow around when we were haggling over the precise detail of firearms licensing and difficult ideas like this?

    Dumb bastard would clog up the works with his peculiar combination of pseudo-syllogisms and advanced dishonesty.

  70. John Z points out that property isn’t useful by citing a case of externalities that can be solved by the application of property rights as the first best solution.

    Thankyou for a wonderful reductio ad absurdum defence of the universality of the utility of property rights.

  71. Volition means the ability to make conscious decisions.
    I think if you tag a post as being about “philosophy”, you should express your position clearer in terms of metaphysics and epistemology. And be more accurate in your wording eg/ axiom.

    If this post was on another lesser read blog I’d ignore it altogether. Your assertion that a principle will create contradictions simply because it is a principle (dogma), as well as your unclear thoughts about GuvCorp, belong in the category of the arbitary because they are not backed up with any meaningful thought.

    Your dogmatic principle seems to be that principles themselves will create contradictions, or that principles can not be applied to ethics, politics or economics. Principles simply need defined context – and the better a principle, the wider it’s context. eg/ Physicists search for the theory of everything.
    But context was not discussed, you just simply stated your principle as if we should take it for granted. – This ironically makes you guilty of the very thing you probably don’t like about dogma, ie: taking principles for granted.
    Many principles are derived from reality and are perfectly valid. The problems with dogma are due to people not knowing how the dogma is derived (ie: not understanding the chain of concepts the principle rests on) or not defining the context of the principle/dogma.
    eg/ Gravity calculations in physics require the constant G, specific to earth. So the context is earth. Note that we don’t even know what gravity really is. Even so, the law of gravity will always work on earth and can be treated as dogma, even when new information comes to hand.

    I also disagree with you saying we are born with inate “feelings” of morality. Legal Science deals with a rational approach to justice, not some kind of populist survey of our feelings that are obviously affected by our culture and thoughts anyway.
    eg/ Try tell a women in Australia to cover her face up with a Burka because she’s being immoral.
    Or, go to an Asian country and see how supportive people are of the death penalty for drug dealers.

  72. a) Brendan’s recital of Coase theorem ignores transaction costs. Does anyone actually think it’s more efficient for every neighbour to negotiate a covenant with every other neighbour than for a government to legislate in accordance with social norms, as imperfect as that process may be?

    b) Suing your neighbour AFTER he wrecks your garden is also inefficient. If one species of weed is notorious for spreading, it’s far more efficient to ban it and save (a) the legal fees and (b) the cost of removing the weed and (c) of fixing the garden.

    c) As for IP, why would a property rights enthusiast be against IP? Unless their support for tangible property is based on theology rather than economics…
    Either way, requiring Microsoft to defend their copyright using technological rather than legal measures is going to be very inefficient. Huge amounts of their resources will be poured into writing code to protect their other code rather than code which does something useful. It’s far more efficient for the government to establish a property right in IP and enforce it, as imperfect as that process may be.

    Mark & Brendan have proved my point admirably – rather than doing an actual efficiency analysis where the result would likely show government was better, we have a first-year level recital of coase theorem. The reason of course is that their “utilitarianism” is little more than ideology in disguise.

  73. JohnZ

    Your method of argument is essentially to assume conditions in which applying the principles of liberty leads to slavery or unfreedom, and then say ‘There, see? Even a libertarian must surely agree now that the relative unfreedom and coercion of a modern state is preferable to that.’ Well yes, because it’s assumed in the premises at the outset.

    The most that can be said of this is that it would lead a libertarian to a self-contradiction in the conditions assumed – hypothetical, unknown in fact or history, and highly dubious in practice for many reasons.

    But the least that can be said of one who denies the proposition of self-ownership, is that he is involved in a self-contradiction in the same breath. Why should we talk to you? Let us talk to the absent authority who owns your life and decides what opinions you should have and what you can say.

    In this way, the proposition of self-ownership is an axiom, since one cannot deny it without a self-contradiction, which is certainly at a higher level of intellectual cogency than the sophism you have put up.

    If GuvCorp’s territory was the whole world, and the world was just a small island or neighourhood, that is the only circumstance I can think of in practice where libertarians would be faced with the problem you have pointed out. Even in today’s world where all lands are discovered, with instant communication and powerful transport, we are about as far away from that monopoly situation as can be imagined, simply because the world is so big, and the rivals for such power are so many.

    But the point of freedom is its practical and moral superiority, not to resolve difficult and circular philosophical speculations in the abstract. All the sophistry in the world cannot take away from the credit due to capitalism in the past 200 years, even for the poorest of the poor, and when compared with the fruits of socialism there should be no question.

    It would be more to the point putting your curiosity and intellectual efforts to challenging yourself and others to refute what Mises and Hayek have shown demolishing the case for socialism and interventionism.

  74. JH: No, I reject foundation theories of political philosophy so I don’t have to choose.

    TimR: I’m certainly regretting not putting more work into this post. As you and others have noted, it’s vague and probably takes on too large an issue in one go. Fair cop.

    However, I didn’t just state my assertion that an entirely logical and always decent foundation theory is impossible. That came up in the comments when people demanded an alternative to natural rights. I can’t give an account of it because I don’t think it exists.

    I also disagree with you saying we are born with inate “feelings” of morality.

    I was careful not to say morality, instead I said “right and wrong”. To clarify, I think the set of moral values provided by evolution is small and ambiguous, but where else would something like the revulsion we feel at an attack by a stranger on a defenseless child come from? You can observe similar behaviours in animals, though they’re probably not experienced in the same way.

  75. If GuvCorp’s territory was the whole world, and the world was just a small island or neighourhood, that is the only circumstance I can think of in practice where libertarians would be faced with the problem you have pointed out.

    Fine then, that’s now the scenario. What do you do, Justin? Surely you wouldn’t infringe on property that was legally acquired through voluntary transactions, would you?

    There’s little point fighting your socialist strawman – I hardly think it needs stating that capitalism has done wondrous things for the human condition.
    As for Hayek, if you actually read him, you’ll find that he was FAR from an anarcho-capitalist. In the Road to Serfdom he even defended government regulation of working hours – in other words, he was something of an interventionist.

  76. “Mark & Brendan have proved my point admirably – rather than doing an actual efficiency analysis where the result would likely show government was better, we have a first-year level recital of coase theorem. The reason of course is that their “utilitarianism” is little more than ideology in disguise.”

    What a load of crap. The examples you cited are given as examples to neophytes and by Professors of where private property rights, rather than a Pigouvian poicy instrument should be used. If you want to “prove” (giggles) that property isn’t universal concept, lift you game.

    You muppet, utilitarianism is my chosen political preference…so calling it an “ideology” is merely name calling.

    You are being hypocritical…your criticism of Brendan “for not doing an efficiency analysis” and assuming that Government enforced criminal disincentives are more effective or efficient than private and civil law disincentives is a giant mistake. It also totally ignores any ability to negotiate which the Coasian solution has but others generally don’t.

  77. Johnz,

    The reson why government dictate is inefficient is because it applies the same covenant to all. A utilitarian like yourself must be able to see that where it comes to local by-laws like noise, a market in private estates with local rules governing fair use. I don’t see how you can proclaim that capitalism is good and then say that a market in by-laws would be inefficient.

    The threat of legal action would mean that you’d have to weigh up your desire for planting noxious weeds in your own garden against the threat of legal sanction. A blanket ban doesn’t prevent negligence, but does make criminals of people before any harm has been done (ie. victimless crime). We don’t ban people from owning dogs, but we do hold them to account when their dogs eat their neighbour’s chickens.

    Your call for the enforcement of IP law is laughable in the face of evidence of its success thus far. Do you always call for more government action when previous interventions have failed to achieve their goal? Innovation in ways to deliver content and pay for its creation is the way forward, not rent seeking.

  78. Just putting my oar in, a lot more was built in by the original assumptions than has been pointed out. In particular, this artificial entity “Guvcorp” is assumed to be able to exist and have the sorts of rights that allow it to become a monopoly of this sort. Without some such bundle of features, this can’t happen – and those assume something already in place that passes the duck test for being a state (“if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck”).

    See what happens if you try replacing “Guvcorp” with the natural person “Sholto Douglas” in the discussion, even if you extend that to make it perpetual in the form of Clan Douglas (since the clan system, like the feudal system, does not require an artificial framework in place to support its units). You don’t get quasi-state behaviour evolving, because of inherent limits on self-organisation. Even Clan Campbell couldn’t hegemonise Scotland from its favourable base, and attempts to do that sort of thing simply raised up alternatives and huge transaction costs in the form of clan warfare – until Clan Campbell morphed into the Dukedom of Argyll and became a pillar of the state instead. If it had succeeded, it would have split – just as the Dalriada had, starting from that same base area.

  79. Mark, are you actually claiming that people negotiating with several hundred surrounding neighbours to ensure they don’t hear loud music after 10pm would be more efficient than legislating roughly in accordance with social norms?

    Brendan has suggested a market in private estates as an alternative – to his credit this is an inifinitely more sensible idea.
    Some questions Brendan:
    Would the “private estate” own the land on which you built your house?
    If not, how would it differ meaningfully from a local council and how would it deal with ratbags who like their music loud?

    Mark, here’s another one for you: Is prior restraint in quarantine justified or would that be an infringement of “natural law”. I mean, we could all just sue the person who knowingly brought bird flu into the country.

  80. Brendan, IP law is flawed (especially patent law), but it’s vastly better than not having it at all. I’ve heard all the rhetoric about “innovative ways to deliver content”, but the slogan glibly ignores the reality.

    For many industries, there is little to no “first mover advantage”. Take movies. As soon as it’s on DVD, a rival can produce flawless copies indistinguishable from the original. How the heck is the studio supposed to compete with that when the rival bears none of the development costs and takes none of the risk?

  81. “Mark, are you actually claiming that people negotiating with several hundred surrounding neighbours to ensure they don’t hear loud music after 10pm would be more efficient than legislating roughly in accordance with social norms?”

    You don’t need to legislate this. Furthermore, you don’t need to actually negotiate with many of them if any.

    It is simply a matter of private contract vs State ordered regulation. The rules can be set when the property is developed.

    “Private estates” don’t and don’t need to own the land. You’re thinkiong of community title which is a club good. The property rights are administered through something like a strata corporation. You’re a little bit behind the eight ball here.

    The difference is the rules are not coercive and have an appropriate level of subsidiarity with better, self selecting outcomes.

    Your example is a little bizzare. I doubt anyone knowingly brought Bird flu out of China and into Indonesia. I see your point but it is a really bad example.

    Quarantine doesn’t need to be done by law, it can be done (think Coase again) privately through “side payments”. If you look at the Australian quarantine zone, there are internal zones which don’t mean that much to the external ones. These smaller ones are more important and may feasibly be done at a user pays level by producers.

  82. IP law isn’t flawed. Modern legislative IP law is flawed.

    Common law IP is generally fine.

    DRM etc and contracts is how you protect music etc. They are more of a pain in the arse then the Copyright Act has ever been for most people.

  83. Johnz,

    You could either lease the land with rules attached or own the land freehold with legally enforceable covenants attached. If you buy a property, ipso facto you accept the covenants attached. Legal sanction could include fines escalating to forced sale of the lease or freehold.

    If you don’t want to pay the high costs of self-regulation, you live in non-managed developments, whereby you have no say over how your neighbour uses his land.

    Get rid of zoning rules and deregulating planning approval would mean that housing would be cheaper, competition for managed estates ensure efficient cost allocation between those that want regulation of land use to and those that don’t.

    You have no right to a peaceful nights sleep unless you are prepared to pay for it. You could do this by installing double glazing, insulation and air conditioning, or by buying the right to have a say in how your neighbours use their property.

  84. Terje, what do you do for a living and did the Copyright Act make more of an impact?

    John, you say there is no substance the argument that we shouldn’t have IP law. What then is this argument which you say has no substance – give an outline of it, because it should be easy to demolish then.

  85. Brendan – do you regard noise pollution as different from other forms of pollution? I believe I do have a right to enjoy my property without you pumping excessive noise or noxious gasses into the atmosphere immediately above my land. Likewise if you piss over the fence or throw bricks I’m going to be considerably unimpressed. Buy yourself a set of headphones.

  86. Okay now I get it. For commercial users of software I would say that copyright has a definite impact on behaviour. For home users I think the impact is marginal.

  87. John Z,

    Go through your original “axioms” and see if IP comes under that. I don’t think it does. It seems as though, properly applied, it minimises theft and coercion.

    The real policy issue is if the State is more efficient in enforcing IP rights. For the consumer at least, it isn’t.

  88. Terje, it’s more than marginal. Most users have a real copy of windows for example – it shipped with their PC. Without IP law, we’d have Microsoft2 which would sell and support copies of Windows for $5. But as you say, it has a massive impact in commercial environments. My employer is very, very careful with licensing and we spend a lot of money on software as a result.

    Mark, perhaps it was a poor example, but what do you mean by this: “These smaller ones are more important and may feasibly be done at a user pays level by producers.”

    Brendan, how big would these estates need to be? Can I open a coal-fired power station in Randwick even if it meant noticeably dirtier air for the surrounding 2 million people?

  89. The real policy issue is if the State is more efficient in enforcing IP rights. For the consumer at least, it isn’t.

    WTF? The mere threat of criminal law motivates my employer and nearly every other business to buy $500 copies of Office. I’d say it’s highly effective.

    The tradeoff is not inefficient enforcement, but rather over-zealous protection. i.e. blindingly obvious ideas being granted patents or copyright being extended far beyond what would motivate people to create new works.

  90. 94 – have a look at the fruit fly exclusion zone.

    Big – that’s the point. The land can become a prohibitive cost or the coal fired power station mitigates it’s pollution. The land nearer residential estates becomes too costly as the site value is much more.

    Curently, power stations are simply built at the discretion of Govenrment with no compensation given for losses at the time they were built.

    I meant end market consumers – not businesses.

    By efficient enforcement I meant by giving an appropriate, flexible level of IP protection – more or less the same concern with tradeoffs you have.

  91. Terje, it is a property right issue for those who choose to not secure fair use through contract. I have no contract with you, I don’t care whether you don’t like my music, its volume or my listening schedule. However, if I physically damage your property by throwing bricks and killing your petunias by pissing on them, I’d be liable for criminal damage.

    What if I put up a big projector screen TV facing your house and showed repeats of Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday 24/7?

    Or put up an advertising billboard for hard core pornography that you can see from your window?

    Or sat their ranting my religios prayers at the top of my voice?

    Just because it annoys you, doesn’t mean anything to my property rights unless we’ve previously agreed to abide by a set of rules through a contract.

    Take me to court and prove that my negligence has done you harm and point to the basis in natural law where it says you have the right to dictate how I enjoy my property without prior contractual agreement.

    Or pay to live in a community that enforces fair use.

    User pays for the sound of silence.

  92. Johnz,

    If you consider that property rights extend to all the natural resources located on that property, including air, water, minerals, then someone who wants to build a coal fired power station in prime residential area would need to pay surrounding land users compensation for the damage done to the air and water. Or as Mark pointed out, the cost of residential land would preclude the building of poluting industry in the midst of other users.

    The flipside of this is that you can’t move in next door to a poluter, and then demand additional compensation or restrictions on their land use, unless they change the degree or nature of their polution.

  93. What if I put up a big projector screen TV facing your house and showed repeats of Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday 24/7?

    I’d run out of popcorn.

    You can cause physical damage with sound. I don’t think that the case is so clear cut as sound waves okay, urine not okay.

    Out of interest can I return fire to your loud noise by burning lawn clippings when the wind is blowing your way. Can I use one of those stage fans to make sure it makes it’s way in through your windows? Or is smoke and wind different to sound?

  94. Terje,

    I’d run out of popcorn.

    Ok, what if I’d dug up every episode of Hey Dad and repeated them over and over?

    If my music is so loud that it causes your walls to crack and windows break, then sue me for that. If you have financial losses and medical costs associated with not being able to work due to sleeplessness, then sue me for that.

    If your leave burning damages my home and furnishings and costs me medical expenses for aggravating my asthma, I’ll sue you for that.

    However, we could avoid this escalation of bad neighbourliness by simply signing a contract with penalties for non-compliance such that we don’t have to wait until real damage is done before we are reminded of our responsibilities under contract law.

    ps. How do you copy blocks of text? I can’t copy from previous posts and am forced to retype to quote.

  95. Let’s change our approach slightly.

    Brendnan and Mark: If economic analysis was done by many first-rate economists which showed a large and clear net-benefit from government enforcement of IP law as it stands, would you support it?

  96. I’m pretty sure that’s what I implied. I don’t see how that actually negates natural rights theories based on your rough summary of what they are.

    The point I am making about IP is that the right balance in utilitarian terms will be “natural law”.

    Except that there is a mass of opposition to current IP law as is.

  97. Could you explain how “natural law” applies to IP?

    How does one determine the length of copyright?

  98. JohnZ — you can reject foundation theories of political philosophies… but to reject the options I gave you is to reject the english language.

    I’ll repeat. It is simply a fact that there are only three reasons you obey another human. Either (1) you agree with what they say, so it’s voluntary; (2) they threaten you; or (3) you accept their authority to tell you what to do.

    Why should I obey the australian government? Either our “trade” is voluntary, in which case you’re saying they own all the land in Australia. Or they are using coercion. Or you are saying that they have legitimate authority over my life.

    I believe in self-ownership and private property, which rules out option (1) and (3). That leaves me with option 2. The reason I obey the government is not because they own Australia or own my life… but because they threaten me with force.

    If you reject that option, then you are either saying that the Australian government owns Australia (ie you reject the existence of private property rights) or you are saying that the Australian government owns the people.

    There is no magical hidden trick here. This is just english. If you prefer, we can try it in chinese… but I don’t think it’s going to strengthen your argument. 🙂

  99. Do you mean when you said: The real policy issue is if the State is more efficient in enforcing IP rights. For the consumer at least, it isn’t.. I assume this is what you meant but I can’t see the connection with “natural law”.

    Consumer copyright is only the beginning. The biggest software user by far is business and as I’ve pointed out several times, the threat of legal action keeps business very kosher with their licenses.

  100. Why isn’t it at least aligned with natural rights – commercial cheating on licenses is more likely to be or be a much greater degree of a breach of fair use.

    If it is the best way to go about it, then it seems to also satisfy your axioms and is at least convergent towards natural rights.

  101. I must have misread your comment – I agree that many of the things I are because the government forces me to.

    I don’t see your point though.
    Under “natural law”, might makes right. The tribe that drove the other tribe away from the water hole dictated the terms of its use.
    The Australian government drove the aborigines away 200 years ago and now sets the terms of living here. If you’re into “natural law” this arrangement should suit you nicely.

    Mark, so you’re theoretically happy with government enforcement of commercial copyright. Any thoughts, Brendan?

    Now to patents. As flawed as they may be, they’re essential for companies like Monsanato to bring forward the next generation of GM crops. Are you happy for the government to enforce them?

  102. I’m sorry, I’ve used rubbery language. I do not think natural rights and law are the same. Might does not make right with natural rights, only “natural” law.

    Maybe the Government enforces the right of an author to income from their labours (one of your axioms again) better than contract does. This is an empirical quesiton. The theoretical gets decided by empiricism.

    Patents have a much weaker case for legislative IP, given there are some very similar processes which are unable to receive IP protection practically or in any philosophical theory. Secrecy and contract reign supreme here. Again, empirics can lead the way.

  103. All property changed hands violently prior to it being exchanged via voluntary contract. Now presumably you think the statue of limitations for theft is less than 200 years. If you look at property this way, how is it illegitimate for the government to tax?

    Mark – you can’t make genetic material secret if you want to sell your product. Contract won’t work either:
    A neighboring farmer collects pollen which floats by. He’s not bound by any contract so he provides a sample to a rival genetics firm who produces copies of the plant without spending a cent on R&D.

    Could you explain how we’re supposed to have a GM industry without patents?

  104. Johnz,

    In my humble opinion, intellectual property can only be protected by contract between the originator and user, it has little basis in natural rights. The problem for producers is creating the right type of contract.

  105. What are you saying with your fist para? How does the third sentence even follow the preceding two?

    Maybe legislative IP is the best way of doing it. I doubt that it can’t be done without legislation however. Again, the question is about empirics.

    What would you do if there was no IP legislation?

    The solution is for the firm not to negotiate with farmers but end marketers somehow.

    This site has some good information as to ending IP.

    Being unfamiliar or sceptical of an idea is not an argument against it.

    Removing IP would change industry structures. Production would shift to larger oligopolists and innovators would be paid by them. That is just the point. Ending IP wouldn’t necessarily “stifle innovation”. It would chnage the way industries were organised. Vertical integration is mostly good.

  106. In my humble opinion, intellectual property can only be protected by contract between the originator and user, it has little basis in natural rights. The problem for producers is creating the right type of contract.

    But Brendan, as I’ve pointed out all it takes is for the material to fall into the hands of one person not party to the contract (incredibly easy in the digital age) and the IP is then in the public domain. It’s not good enough to talk about the right type of contract. Unless that contract binds all competitors then they will just free-ride. And even that won’t solve the problem; new competitors will immediately open up shop since they’d be able to sell at a fraction of the price.

    To clarify my original para:
    The government seized the property (asutralia) 200 years ago. The statue of limitations for theft has for all intents and purposes expired so the government now owns Australia. The property owner (the government) has set the terms of the use of their property – thou shalt pay tax. This would seem entirely in accordance with the natural rights theories advanced on this thread.

    Mark – how the heck can the firm negotiate with the marketers? As soon as they strike a deal with one marketer, that marketer will be at a competitive disadvantage as they will have to pay royalties. New marketers will immediately start up and undercut those who signed the deal.

    Ending IP wouldn’t necessarily “stifle innovation”. It would chnage the way industries were organised. Vertical integration is mostly good.

    Vertical integration won’t solve anything – a new company will form which consists of two divisions:
    Division A copies the competitor’s products.
    Division B sells the product for a fraction of the price of the competitor.

    Why would anyone pay innovators when they can just free-ride? For something like a drug or genome it’s very very easy to copy – witness the generics firms hovering whenever a patent expires. With no IP, they’d be ready as soon as the innovator has finished clinical trials!

    You’re going to have to provide a concrete example as this all seems like wishful thinking to me.

  107. JohnZ, do you still maintain it’s a fallacy to derive an ought from an is?

    If I were to say to you that the human condition is X, and the nature of our world is Y, therefore we ought to do Z to improve the human condition, would you consider this false logic?

  108. The government seized the property (asutralia) 200 years ago. The statue of limitations for theft has for all intents and purposes expired so the government now owns Australia. The property owner (the government) has set the terms of the use of their property – thou shalt pay tax. This would seem entirely in accordance with the natural rights theories advanced on this thread.

    This assumes that the government is some entity separate from the people. If this is the case, then the government is a dictatorship and the people are right to overthrow it. If the people have consensual government, in other words the government of civil society, then this position does not hold.

    This is an interesting use of the government concept. It’s like people who want to sacrifice individual rights to serve society without acknowledging that society is composed of those same individuals.

  109. Johnz,

    A business model:

    Software company sells you a contract to provide you with access to up to date applications whereby the software is web based and the user merely uses the software to generate their documents. At no point does software change hands, and even if someone managed to steal the software, they’d need to invest in the infrastructure to support it. You might even be able to provide a web service with open source software, providing small companies with file storage and processing power that would be prohibitive for them to invest in individually. The software could be free, but the service is paid for.

    A record company offers a service whereby you access their catalogue online and have music suggested to you by previous listening. The tracks are stored online, although you could store some tracks locally for short periods of time for when access is restricted, such as when you are in transit. Access to tickets for live music gigs would be restricted to subscibers. I’d imagine that such a service would be tied into mobile phone or internet service provder contracts, or repackagers who group such services together.

    Book publishers and the film industry do something similar to the model suggested for the music industry above.

    These are only examples I’ve thought of without spending too much time. Ownership of the actual content isn’t what you are selling, but access to convenience of the service.

    Worried about content providers? Well let them provide their content exclusively to service providers and agree to a fee structure that reflects the value of the number of subscribers to “their channel”.

    None of the above would necessarily prevent piracy, but pirates would not be able to provide the same service as legitimate providers. File sharing only works easily when many share your same interest, but filesharers can’t easily find less popular or specialised content. Amazon.com can deliver low volume products quickly because of efficiencies of scale that a local seller must order in, an oline content version of Amazon would provide you with that content instantaneously.

    I think convenience and support service will be the key to content provision in the future, not film studios and record labels suing 15 year nerds for file sharing.

  110. Michael – that’s a utilitarian argument which uses human nature as part of its function as any sensible utilitarian argument would do.
    It’s arguments of this kind I’m attacking: humans evolved doing X so it’s part of our nature. Therefore we should do X.

    If this is the case, then the government is a dictatorship and the people are right to overthrow it.

    This was precisely the point of my post. The only trouble is that it demolishes property as an absolute right. In this situation, the dictatorial Australian government would still be the legitimate property owner. As long as people wished to remain on their land they would have to abide by the property owners terms. If you believe private property and voluntary contract are absolutes, how can you possibly justify violently overthrowing a legitimate property owner?

    Brendan, agreed that selling software as a service would work fine without copyright, but this can only ever account for a portion of software sales. An “online operating system” is impossible as is any sort of software which people might want to access when there’s no network connectivity… or when they are working with confidential data.

    GM crops have massive potential, could you explain how we’re supposed to have a viable GM industry without protection for their inventions?

  111. What on earth are you talking about John? Monsanto strikes a deal with Woolworths for cheaper crops and it puts Woolworths at a competitive disadvantage?

    Hey John, why don’t you provide us of a concrete example of IP laws actually having a net benefit?

    Vertical integration and increasing scale are the benefits we tradeoff for ending the restrictiveness of patents.

    Quite frankly I am surprised you think a GM researcher can copyright something already in my own body or in my cornfield, or in the fish I raise…your heart has been patented, please stop its unauthorised use or we will execute an Anton Piller order and remove it for you.

    This baffles me as you were only previously arguing for a reduction in the veracity of IP. I said empirically it can be shown which approach is best and the best outcomes seem to satisfy your axioms of what natural rights are. They are your definitions remember.

    The choice is between patent led product innovation and efficient scale service based led innovation.

  112. What on earth are you talking about John? Monsanto strikes a deal with Woolworths for cheaper crops and it puts Woolworths at a competitive disadvantage?

    They’ll be at a disadvantage because a rival genetics company will clone Monsanto’s crops and sell them to Coles at a price Woolworths can’t match.

    Now, how will your system deal with this free-rider problem?

  113. Can we just establish we aren’t arguing about natural rights but policy approaches now?

    John, your idea completely ignores the possibility of botique engineering by small firms for certain conditions. This may well be the most productive way to go ahead. IP law as is and patents would totally destroy this kind of innovation. Why should genes that already exist be patented and limit this kind of activity? The IP in this case would be a matter of proprietary information and technical know how. The pricing structure can determine the deterrence or futility of cheating.

    Maybe firms like Monsanto shouldn’t exist in their current form but offer consultancy services as opposed to product based competition.

    What Monsanto would need to do otherwise would make agreements with grain exchanges, farmers and retail stores. The difference here is I am only treating the innovation as either proprietary information or another product feature that warrants exclusivity.

    It is difficult to argue this is too costly, since effective deterrence requires a smiliar level of surveillance.

  114. Mark – I’m really arguing with Brendan here. He bases his politics on “natural law” and I’m providing a situation where “natural law” will make us very much worse off.

    With you I’m arguing policy because despite your claims to be a utilitarian, your utility function seems to look something like this:

    if action_is_by_government then
    utilty=0
    otherwise
    utility=1

    What Monsanto would need to do otherwise would make agreements with grain exchanges, farmers and retail stores.

    It’s simply too easy to free-ride. Any who strikes a deal will quickly be undercut by competitors who aren’t party to the contract.

    Maybe firms like Monsanto shouldn’t exist in their current form but offer consultancy services as opposed to product based competition.

    WTF? So instead of actually a providing a product, they’ll instead provide consultancy services to other companies, who’ll face the exact problems Monsanto did.

    John, your idea completely ignores the possibility of botique engineering by small firms for certain conditions.

    Sure, money could still be made there but the key word was boutique.

    This is becoming farcical, Mark.

  115. No John, you’re just biased. Your reactionary, assumption laden arguments show this.

    Boutique as they serve farmers, not the entire industry. Like how a lawyer is “boutique” because he can’t solve the entire nation’s legal problems.

    It isn’t farcical at all. There is a strong body of literature which strongly argues for the weakening if not reduction in IP. You just seem to be angry that it exists at all.

    Industry structures will change. Lowest cost producers will reward innovators and innovation will become service based, not product based. You’re not being rational, you don’t even want to invite a empirical analysis, you want to dismiss it out of hand.

  116. Mark there is simply no comparison with a lawyer. At present, Monsanto is working on pest or drought resistant crops. They will sell largely the same strain world wide. Massive potential for piracy without IP.

    Perhaps there will be some special customisations in some areas, but that is not what they are doing now.
    I have no problem with the idea of weakening IP. As I stated up-thread, there are problems with the current system, but abolishing it entirely would be even worse.

    No one has provided an even vaguely credible argument which shows that common law and market forces can replace government granted IP.

    I’ve explained at length why your examples won’t work and cited real examples such as generics companies who are doing exactly what I suggested they would do. There haven’t been many successful contracts stopping companies distributing the generic drugs once the patent expires, have there?

    Your arguments smack of wishful thinking. You also haven’t provided any links to any empirical analysis that supports the abolition of IP.

  117. Again, sorry:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Maskin#Software_patents

    “Maskin suggested that software patents inhibit innovation rather than stimulate progress. Software, semiconductor, and computer industries have been innovative despite historically weak patent protection, he argued. Innovation in those industries has been sequential and complementary, so competition can increase firms’ future profits. In such a dynamic industry, “patent protection may reduce overall innovation and social welfare.” A natural experiment occurred in the 1980s when patent protection was extended to software,” wrote Maskin. “Standard arguments would predict that R&D intensity and productivity should have increased among patenting firms. Consistent with our model, however, these increases did not occur.” Other evidence supporting this model includes a distinctive pattern of cross-licensing and a positive relationship between rates of innovation and firm entry. [4]”

    Software innovation is one of the items you have been rather defensive of.

    [4] Sequential Innovation, Patents, and Imitation, by James Bessen and Eric Maskin, Discussion paper, MIT (2000), forthcoming in The RAND Journal of Economics

  118. JohnZ, I don’t like to call my argument “natural rights” because that term is mis-used just as much as it’s used. I refer to this as my “deontelogical” argument (ie determining the morality of action based on the action, not the outcome) or “liberty” argument (ie arguing that voluntary and peaceful is better than the alternative).

    Of course, as stated elsewhere, I don’t think that liberty is the only virtue in life. Utility (ie happiness, broadly defined) is also important.

    Second, could you chaps perhaps call the other john “JohnZ” or just “Z” so that I don’t get an identity crisis. 🙂

  119. Anyway JohnZ… this has been a good debate and I’m glad you contributed it. When is the next blog post coming? Perhaps something that reveals the inner-libertarian dying to get out?

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