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Unearned Guilt: The Free-Rider Fallacy

January 22nd, 2009

I have previously characterized the “libertarians are free-riders” argument as nonsense, as a slimy tactic which poisons the well with unearned guilt. Recent discussion threads at Reddit caused me to re-examine the “social contract” the most convincing arguments in support of which, although still fallacious appeals to emotion, fall back on the “free rider” argument: those who do not pay their “fair share” are somehow cheating everyone else, they are “stealing” from society. In a nutshell, anyone who works for a living, anyone who produces anything whatsoever of value, is not a free rider.

I want to take the time to extrapolate on that line of thought.

Collectivists of all creeds typically resort to some argument that relies on one’s acceptance of the subsidies of history as the base justification for their “social contract”. It is of paramount importance to understand first and foremost, that although history could have been different, none of us having had any say in the matter, the entire course of human existence happened in only one particular sequence, he culmination of which is the Present, imperfect as she may be. The consequences, to some extent, we all bear, and the benefits to some extent, we all reap.

The Present could have been different, but it is not. The Present only is.

We can not deny the language that has evolved over the millenia, the wheel, the lever, the wedge, the inclined plan, the transistor, the cotton gin, the x-ray, the microchip, penicillin or any of the myriad inventions, discoveries and luxuries that make all of our lives easier than they were in generations past. One “accepts” these subsidies, not because he or she is a “free rider”, but because one can not deny them.

What we deny, is that merely because we inherited these things, owe a debt to future generations (who will also inherit these things, and then some!). Further, we deny that we owe a debt to past generations who created these things; they did not invent for our sake (and even if they did, this does not create an obligation for us), they invented for their own sake, the benefits of which they have fairly reaped.

But neither can we deny the many injustices or atrocities that have been perpetrated by men long dead, which served to injure us or our brethren, to impede the progress of humanity, to reduce by some amount the real standard of living which we could otherwise enjoy. The question then is, what can be done about the sub-optimal distribution of property?

I content that in order to alleviate those now suffering from past wrongs, it is not necessary to perpetrate further injustices on some scapegoat, class warfare-style. It is not necessary to cause injury.

We can not, nor should we be asked to, make penance for the sins of our fathers, except by arresting any ongoing injustices, removing impediments, breaking down the walls that cage us all, and tolerating them no longer, forever. We can set things right only by freeing ourselves and ceasing to rely upon that which is wrong.

All we need to do is stop hurting people.

Comments

5 Comments

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  • Mike Gogulski says on: January 23, 2009 at 2:13 pm

     

    Re: the stolen car mentioned in your 2007 posting on the distribution of property:

    From Rothbard’s “Confiscation and the Homestead Principle”:

    “Suppose, for example, that A steals B’s horse. Then C comes along and takes the horse from A. Can C be called a thief? Certainly not, for we cannot call a man a criminal for stealing goods from a thief. On the contrary, C is preforming a virtuous act of confiscation, for he is depriving thief A of the fruits of his crime of aggression, and he is at least returning the horse to the innocent “private” sector and out of the “criminal” sector. C has done a noble act and should be applauded. Of course, it would be still better if he returned the horse to B, the original victim. But even if he does not, the horse is far more justly in C’s hands than it is in the hands of A, the thief and criminal.”

  • David Z says on: January 23, 2009 at 3:30 pm

     

    I have to disagree with Rothbard here. On the other hand, I think my previous statement also needs some refinement.

    Maybe you can’t call C a thief if he’s intentionally stealing only from known thieves themselves, but I think he’s a far cry from “virtuous” (amoral would be a good adjective) unless he’s also attempting to return the stolen property to its rightful owners.

  • Johnny Walker Purple says on: January 25, 2009 at 10:01 pm

     

    So if we eat a piece of food we shouldn’t pay for it? That’s what it sounds like you are saying to me.

    We are consuming goods and services that have been provided not only by our ancestors but buy our government. Surely as a strict propertarian you agree that if you make use of a service you must pay for it afterword, yes?

  • David Z says on: January 25, 2009 at 10:45 pm

     

    To your first question: No. I’m just saying that the tactic of trying to shame me into feeling guilty for accepting the subsidy of history is absolute B.S. If it sounds to you like I’m saying “we shouldn’t pay for anything” then you need a lesson in reading comprehension.

    To the second comment, as an extension of the first: No. The fact that someone else has taken it upon himself (i.e., not at my behest) to provide a good/service (which I don’t even have the opportunity to refuse!), is not, of itself, sufficient justification for forcing me to pay him for it.

    Otherwise, you should be paying me to read my blog, since I wrote it, and you consumed it by reading it. But that’s nonsense, isn’t it. Yes, yes it is. And it would be nonsense if the street musician held a gun to you and demanded that you pay for the “benefit” of hearing his dulcet melodies. You consumed them, after all.

    The argument is no less ridiculous just because you substitute “police” for “blogger” or “street musician.”

  • George Donnelly says on: January 28, 2009 at 12:59 pm

     

    It’s like a guy defending taxation commented to me online the other day:

    “Don’t let me catch you joyriding on the Interstate Highway System.”

    Thanks for clearly identifying the principle at work here.

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