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Non-Libertarian FAQ

January 20th, 2009

Mike Huben wrote Critiques of Libertarianism: A Non-Libertarian FAQ, to address what he views as deficiencies in Libertarian philosophies. He indicates that its purpose is “not to attack libertarianism” but rather to attack “some of the more fallacious arguments” of libertarianism, “That done, libertarians can then reformulate or reject these arguments.”

There have been a number of responses responses to this “FAQ”, notably Glen Raphael’s excellent rebuttal at and David Friedman’s response to Huben at

Here’s my take:

Here’s my two cents.

I’m going to skip the constitutional arguments 1, 2, and 3 since I don’t subscribe to that particular set of beliefs.

Instead, I’ll proceed directly to the fourth argument he intends to dispose of, Libertarians are defenders of freedom and rights

The foremost defenders of our freedoms and rights, which libertarians prefer you overlook, are our governments. National defense, police, courts, registries of deeds, public defenders, the Constitution and the Bill Of Rights, etc. all are government efforts that work towards defending freedoms and rights.

The foremost aggressors, the foremost destroyers of human life and human well-being, throughout the ages, have been “our governments,” as I’ve previously noted:

Throughout 10,000 years of human history, the biggest threat to any man – a threat from which States have proven utterly powerless to protect him – has been one State or another, whether it be his own, or his neighbor’s.

That one particular government (in America, e.g.) happens to be less offensive in this regard than others (in China, Afghanistan under the Taliban, e.g.) is a distinction without difference. The miscarriages of justice begin at the lowest level of enforcement and continue up the government hierarchy. Some are just better at implementing oppression than are the others. There is no government program that does not infringe upon someone’s rights. None.

Huben also thinks that Taxation is theft is a lousy argument.

The first is that property is theft. The notion behind property is that A declares something to be property, and threatens anybody who still wants to use it. Where does A get the right to forcibly stop others from using it? …This justifies property taxes or extraction taxes on land or extractable resources if you presume that the government is a holder in trust for natural resources.

Ah, yes… “If you presume [insert inter-subjective assumptions, here} then you must agree with me!”

When property is claimed by a first-owner, no threat is made or implied. No force, no threat of force is needed, until someone else attempts to forcibly relieve him of his enjoyment of that property. This can only be justified by a belief in property. As Friedman notes, the argument that “theft” can exist absent a coherent definition of “property” is patently retarded.

The second is that taxation is part of a social contract. Essentially, tax is payment in exchange for services from government. This kind of argument is suitable for defending almost any tax as part of a contract.

Since Huben brings up the “social contract” in greater detail later, and this position depends crucially upon that argument, I’ll table the discussion temporarily.

Continuing the discussion of taxes, Huben cites the common libertarian argument, If you don’t pay your taxes, men with guns will show up at your house, initiate force and put you in jail. Huben criticizes thusly:

This is not initiation of force. It is enforcement of contract, in this case an explicit social contract. … Even if libertarians reduced all law to “don’t commit fraud or initiate force”, they would still enforce with guns.

I don’t have a problem with the guns, I have a problem with the enforcement of the so-called “contract”.

It is most certainly an improper initiation of force, since it cannot be shown that the victim is an aggressor in any sense of the word. Viz., at no time has he, through non-action or abstention, inflicted positive harm or threatened same, upon anyone. So long as his inaction or abstention is carried out in a manner open and notorious, he has rejected the “services” provided by the government. It is, at this time, the government’s responsibility to the maximum extent possible, to cease providing same. Even in certain cases where the goods and services provided can not be “un-bundled”, it is not the individual’s responsibility to pay for them. So-called “public” goods are not sufficient justification for confiscatory taxes.

Huben does not hold back from denying the libertarian arguments the “social contract”, either.

There are several explicit means by which people make the social contract with government. The commonest is when your parents choose your residency and/or citizenship after your birth. In that case, your parents or guardians are contracting for you, exercising their power of custody. No further explicit action is required on your part to continue the agreement, and you may end it at any time by departing and renouncing your citizenship.

This argument holds if and only if the social contract was valid for one’s parents. It nicely assumes the propriety of the position being challenged, leaving no room whatsoever for honest discussion.

Immigrants, residents, and visitors contract through the oath of citizenship (swearing to uphold the laws and constitution), residency permits, and visas.

OK, but as Friedman responds, “This only works if the government already has the right to keep people out–which is one of the things you need the social contract to get. Otherwise the “contract” is void on grounds of duress.”

These are precisely the sort of inter-subjective propositions upon which the argument from Social Contract rests. Duress being a condition sufficient to make void a contract, it stands to reason that the “social contract”, either is not a contract as I’ve previously suggested, or if it ever was one, it is now void and no longer justly enforceable.

Some libertarians make a big deal about needing to actually sign a contract. Take them to a restaurant and see if they think it ethical to walk out without paying because they didn’t sign anything. Even if it is a restaurant with a minimum charge and they haven’t ordered anything. The restaurant gets to set the price and the method of contract so that even your presence creates a debt.

The straw-man argument put forth above ignores things like property rights. But, since he believes (paradoxically) all property to be stolen in the first place, this is not particularly alarming. It would be a more appropriate analogy if, instead of a restaurant, it was a caterer. The caterer comes to your house, sets up his hotel trays in a buffet line, and tells you that regardless of whether you eat the food which he has provided for your benefit, he demands to be paid—a demand he is willing to back with force. Why do you not have the right to charge him, for disturbing your dining room, interrupting your schedule, and blocking your driveway with his trucks?

Continuing along the “social contract” highway, Huben challenges the argument that The social contract is like no other because it can be “unilaterally” modified. I’ll admit, this is a pretty piss-poor argument and should be used only in conjunction with other arguments against the “social contract.” That said, I find Huben’s defense of “unilateral” alteration of contracts to be unconvincing.

Huben suggests that purchasing a condominum is similar. And it is, to some extent. Except that when you turn 18, you don’t automatically incur an obligation to the condominium in which your parents raised you. Purchasing a condominium is, strictly speaking, a voluntary action. The default position is “not owning a condominium” which conveniently carries no explicit obligations of any sort. Only after one chooses to purchase the condominium and expressly agree to the bylaws and governance of property held in common, is one bound by such a contract. Huben contends that,

There are numerous other common sorts of contracts that allow changes by one or both sides without negotiation Gas, electric, oil, water, phone, and other utility services normally have contracts where at most they need to notify you in advance when they change their rates. Insurance companies raise their rates, and your only input is either pay the new rates or “vote with your feet”.

None of these contracts are a “default” condition. I find it striking, that he uses the term “vote with your feet” to describe the process of choosing a new cable provider, or a new insurance company, when actually one “votes with his wallet,” an option the State does not permit.
Huben presents his rebuttals to several Other miscellaneous claims denying the social contract, stating that

Some complain that the social contract is fundamentally unjust because it doesn’t treat people equally, that people are taxed unequally or receive services unequally. So? Like insurance, rates can vary from individual to individual, and services received may be more or less than premiums paid.

The “insurance” analogy suffers from the same deficiencies as the “condominium” analogy, above.

Furthermore, the fact that some people receive “more” in service from their insurer is only evidence that they have suffered more in comparison, this is not unfair, and reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what an insurance policy actually is. An insurance policy provides for (among other things) risk transferrence and indemnification of economic loss.

Some complain “Any contract where the enforcing agency is one of the contractors is hardly fair.” But the U.S. Constitution is a contract between SEVERAL parties: the three branches of the government, the states, and citizens. It’s a multilateral contract where every party is subject to enforcement by one or more of the other parties, and every party is involved in enforcement for at least one other. This pattern of checks and balances was specifically designed to deal with precisely this fairness issue.

I’m not entirely sure this is an accurate description of the constitution. The constitution is a declaration of government. It is a document of establishment. It says to everyone within earshot, “We proclaim to be government and this is how we’re going to operate.”

It’s not a contract. The constitution created the three branches of government, and defined their roles with respect to one another, as part of the whole. The system of “checks and balances” was designed in order to prevent one of the three branches from wielding too much power.

Relying predominately on the “social contract”, Huben aims to answer Why one should be forced to leave if he doesn’t like it. This is an argument I’ve previously addressed ad nauseum, but most recently in a reply to a reader e-mail, The State is NOT a Voluntary Arrangement. Huben draws another straw-man comparison to apartment living, to justify the “love it or leave it” approach:

Why leave an apartment if you change your mind about the lease? You do not own the apartment, just as you do not own the nation. At most, you may own some property within the apartment, just as you may own some property within the nation.

Well, he’s right: don’t own the apartment, and that’s why you have to leave if you decide you no longer like the terms of living there. But you get to keep all of your property. And he’s right to suggest that “you do not own the nation.” So, if I have to leave when I don’t like the contract, it follows that I am not the “owner” of the land on which I live. If you don’t, and I don’t, then we don’t own it, collectively, either.

(As an aside: what’s Huben’s obsession with apartment leases?)

One can assume (safely, I think) from the context of Huben’s argument, that “the nation” is the owner of the land, and we are merely tenants thereupon. But what is “the nation” and who the hell owns it? Remember, we’ve already excluded the possibility that “we” own the nation, collectively.

Show your work in order to receive full credit.

What about bad governments, like Cuba? Huben responds to the challenge, “Do Cubans under Castro agree to their social contract?”

Interestingly enough, Huben presumes to define for Cubans what constitutes their social contract (or lack thereof), yet we’re not allowed to define our own. If you define contracts as voluntary, then you probably wouldn’t say the Cuban government operates by social contract, since most people who wanted to emigrate have not been permitted to.

Well, of course I would agree to those things. However, it is simply asinine to hold that the legal permission to emigrate is the single necessary and sufficient condition to establish that a social contract is “voluntary”. This was not stated explicitly, but implied in context.

Most libertarians have a peculiar definition of voluntary: contractual agreement makes all requirements of the contract “voluntary”, no matter how unexpected they are, no matter how long the contract lasts for, no matter if the contractee changes his mind. However, they’re seldom willing to view our social contract in that manner.

This is a gross mischaracterization, and intellectually dishonest, likely on purpose.

Voluntary agreement validates a contract. The contract doesn’t make the agreement voluntary. So, it is no wonder that we’re not willing to apply this ass-backwards logic and conclude that since the social contract is a contract, it’s voluntary.

Our social contract in the USA is one of the nice, voluntary contracts that libertarians should like. Even better, because you can terminate it by leaving at any time. There is no US government obstacle to emigration from the US.

No government obstacle? The fact that the USA is comparatively less offensive than other governments in other times and/or places not at issue here.

There certainly is an obstacle, for most of the people who are too poor to exercise their “choice” by leaving. Those with the financial wherewithal to exercise this “choice” suffer a different fate, altogether. Some of his assets will be seized as an expatriation tax. The government will continue to attempt to collect income taxes from him for up to ten years, based on the spurious argument that he emigrated as a “tax evader”.

So, if someone doesn’t like the terms of the “contract”, he is more than welcome to leave (if he can afford to do so), at which point the government will seize some or all of his assets within its self-defined jurisdiction, and after which the government will continue to try and tax the expatriate, just for the hell of it. NB: Failing to remit these tax payments may qualify the expatriate as a criminal in the eyes of the state, which means he can never come back as a “visitor” to see family, for vacations, etc.

B-6. I sunk your fucking battleship.

Huben believes you should “love it, or leave it.”

This is a distinction that seems too subtle for a lot of libertarians: the difference between having a choice and having to leave.

For example, let’s say you live in a condominium…

Not this again!

Of course this is a “love it or leave it” argument. I prefer to couch it in less friendly terms, since it’s actually an “If you don’t like it, get the f**k out!” argument. The dissenter is always presumed wrong, even though it is (arguably) his country, too (at least partially). There are two sides to any disagreement. That one side happens to be popularly held does not substantiate it morally, ethically, etc. I do not like certain aspects of the social contract, other people do.

Or, to put it another way, other people don’t agree with my social contract. Why don’t they have to leave it? If you start by evicting everyone who disagrees, all you’re left with is people who agree, which virtually ensures the State’s perpetuation, and further impedes the (misguided) notion that reform can happen from within. Everyone who wants meaningful reform has been shown the door.

Charming way to run a society, isn’t it?

So, why should we be obliged to accept the social contract? why can’t we be left alone?

You are not coerced to accept US government services any more than you are coerced to rent or purchase a place to live. If pretty much all territory is owned by governments, and pretty much all houses and apartments are owned, well, did you want them to grow on trees? There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

The government owns everything, and we are merely tenants. Thanks, you just gave everyone the Reader’s Digest definition of feudalism.

Who owns the government?

Some contend that, OK, we’d leave but there’s no libertarian state, so we’ve got nowhere to go. This concedes the basic challenge to the “love it or leave it” argument, and as such, it’s another bad libertarian argument. Huben picks the low-hanging fruit:

There are roughly 200 nations to which you could emigrate. They are the product of an anarcho-capitalist free market: there is no over-government dictating to those sovereign nations.

Nice try. With few exceptions (Sealand, anyone?) all of these countries were established through violence and conquest. None of them were founded on anything remotely approaching a “free market”, and none of them recognize an individual’s right to sovereignty, as would a free market.

the free market of government services essentially guarantees that there is no such thing as the free lunch libertarians want. It’s not competitive.

Stop poisoning the well with terms like “the free market of government services.” The only people who want a “free lunch” are those who seek to offload the costs of their lifestyle choices onto others. In economics, this is now as a negative externality, and it is commonly associated with the so-called tragedy of the commons.

Interestingly enough, the government as a non-rival, non-excludable service (or package of services) is the single greatest “commons”. Accordingly, government should be plagued by the very same problems which allegedly afflict commons where property rights are not well-defined (per Coase): overuse and underprovision.

Is extortion by the State no different than extortion by the Mafia? I say “yes”. Huben says “no”.

This is a prize piece of libertarian rhetoric, because it slides in the accusation that taxation is extortion.

Yes, it’s a loaded question. It should be asked: How is taxation substantially different from Mafia extortion? In either case, a group of men claim some privilege to a portion of your income/earnings, without your consent. And they are willing to take it from you by force, if need be. It is a prize piece of statist rhetoric, or perhaps of ignorance, to avoid any discussion of morality; how human beings ought to act with regards to one another.

The statist always denies your freedoms in order to protect you from someone else. This may be a topic for a future, stand-alone post. Stay tuned.

The Mafia doesn’t own anything to contract about.

And the government does. Because the government says it does.

That, my dear readers, is circular logic at its finest. The only substantial difference between the government and organized crime, is the fact that organized crime does not generally pretend to be looking out for your best interests, which is nice, because at least you know you should fear them.
Some libertarians argue that There’s no such thing as rights to govern a territory. They’re 100% correct, and Huben is 100% wrong when he says:

You’d have to ignore an awful lot of history to claim this sort of PROPERTY didn’t exist. The US government can demonstrate ownership of such rights through treaty, purchase, bequeathment by the original colonies and some other states, and conquest. The EXACT same sources as all other forms of land ownership in the US. Also note that governance rights are merely a subset of the rights that anarcho-libertarians would want landowners to have. For example, insistence on contractual obedience to regulations and acceptance of punishment for violations.

Let’s translate Huben’s argument from above:

The government can demonstrate “ownership” of land through conspiracy, theft, bequeathment by original squatters and other governments, and military coups overthrowing a previously existing government, which obtained the land in one of the same manners, ad infinitum. The EXACT same sources as all other forms of land ownership in the US.

Great, so you’ve successfully demonstrated that all the land was stolen. Claiming ownership of lots of stolen property doesn’t mitigate the many crimes perpetrated to obtain it. Furthermore, no honest “anarcho-libertarian” believes in “governance” rights, rather only the right to possession and use.

You’d have to ignore pretty much the entire plain text (not my interpretation, the actual text) of the Consitution, to fail at differentiating between “rights” and “powers.” There is no such thing as a “right” to govern a territory, there is only a right to own, occupy, and/or use the territory. Rights belong to human beings in their individual capacities. Government exercises “powers” of its own invention, which it claims to have been granted permission to exercise by the people.

Some libertarians argue, Why should I be told what to do with my property? That infringes on my rights of ownership. According to Huben:

This question comes up rather often, since absolute ownership of property is fundamental to most flavors of libertarianism. Such propertarianism fuels daydreams of being able to force the rest of the world to swirl around the immovable rock of your property. For example, there were trespass lawsuits filed against airlines for flying over property.

A good answer is: what makes you so sure it is yours?

Nothing says “dodging the question” like answering a question with a question, or poisoning the well. Nobody is trying to “force the rest of the world to swirl around” our immovable rocks. We’re just asking to be treated with the dignity and respect deserving of a peaceful human being.

His question, however, is well received: the presumption that one owns the air and the earth, above and below (respectively) to infinity, is so ludicrous as to hardly warrant consideration, except for the pesky fact that some libertarians believe it. But some statists support (or have supported in the past) such abominations as apartheid, genocide, human trafficking and enslavement, etc.

I try to stay away from straw-men, a little professional courtesy would go a long way.

Huben is fond of cherry-picking the lamest “libertarian” arguments, and using these to refute an entire political philosophy. Here’s another straw man: Of course it’s my property. I paid money and hold the deed.

I would be surprised if any libertarian has ever made such an argument. Huben is right to point out the futility of contesting government-granted property rights on such grounds. All the nonsense about easements for use, riparian and mineral rights, etc., are red herrings. Maybe we wouldn’t need them, maybe we would, but there’s no reason these or something analagous to them, couldn’t arise in a free society.

One need only examine the thousands of varying rules, regulations, laws, codes, etc., which govern the thousands of cities within the U.S., to arrive at the conclusion that there need not be one single standard. Furthermore, since many laws vary at county or municipality level, there’s not even any reason to presume that land-use standards need to be consistent among neighbors: only that one respect the property of others.

Some libertarians object to New limitations on use of property as an unjust taking for which they should “be compensated”. Huben counters:

Some new limitations can be viewed as merely making specific that what was claimed was never really owned.

Translation: some new limitations can be viewed as merely correcting for the errors and omissions of previous governments. Government is the only problem on earth, for which the default “solution” is more of the same. Just food for thought.

Other limitations (such as rezoning to eliminate undesirable business or protecting wetlands from development) might be viewed as control of negative externalities. Most libertarians would recognize the right of a mall owner to write his leases so that he could terminate them if the renters cause externalities: why shouldn’t communities have this right to self-governance as well?

No reason why they shouldn’t. I call bullshit on this false choice. From context, we can safely surmise that Huben believes a government may be established by a certain group of people, claiming dominion over others in proximity, at which point these others must “love it or leave it”.

The problem isn’t “community”, although I would venture that Huben wouldn’t know a true community if it kicked him in the scrotum, and the issue isn’t the rectification of valid torts. The devil is in the details: how is the community established? In all cases that Huben could conceivably site in support of his position, the “community” was established without unanimity, and dissenters were systematically expelled, enslaved, or murdered.

Huben challenges the notion that we’d be better off without taxes.

This is a classic example of libertarians not looking at the complete equation for at least two reasons. (1) If taxes are eliminated, you’ll need to purchase services that were formerly provided by government. (2) If taxes are eliminated, the economics of wages have changed, and wages will change as well.

Huben’s microeconomics are pretty sound, however, the argument that “we’d be wealthier if we didn’t pay taxes” is not nearly as economically retarded as he makes it appear. In a single game, of course, we could expect some individuals to make poor choices regarding their consumption, savings, investment, etc. But in an iterated game, individuals learn from their poor choices, especially when such learning is incentivized by the prospect of economic well-being. Furthermore, honest competition between different organizations, to provide those goods and services previously the domain of government, should lead to product innovation and lower prices. Money not spent by some individuals on programs they don’t like (e.g., drug prohibition) would be put towards satisfying some higher-order need. It all adds up to greater economic well-being.

What also changes are the economics of resource allocation. Since all resources are scarce, this is the single most pressing problem of economics, in fact it is the only problem of economics: how to best allocate a finite amount of resources towards the production of an infinite array of desires. What Huben neglects to account for, is the vast amount of real resources (human capital, physical capital, manpower/labor, raw materials, etc.) that governments squander, waste, or otherwise destroy, without making us collectively any better off. Such misallocation serves only to transfer wealth from one group of people to another, which creates class warfare, which breeds an “Us vs. Them” mentality, which plays nicely into the hands of those who want to rule others. It’s not about freedom, it’s about power.




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