(This article is a compliment to Chapter 4: “The Laissez-faire Road to Serfdom” of my book Breakup! Here I put the rise of “post-libertarianism” in the context of moral philosophy and our political moment. This is a free article. My last article, “Embracing our Glorious Future as Amish or Termites”, was exclusive for paid subscribers. I’m going to try and alternate between free and paid, and offer additional perks to paid subscribers, like early access to the audiobook version of Breakup!)
I won’t bury the lede here: libertarianism philosophy isn’t made for times we’re living in, and every single one of us who values liberty needs to recognize this and adapt our beliefs, and strategy, accordingly.
Having been direct about the argument I’ll be making, I am nonetheless going to take a somewhat windy road to get there. Stick with me, though, as I promise to make the journey worthwhile. I don’t want to give too much away, but it will involve bad Quakers, queer economists, invasive iguanas, hole-in-one golf shots, and liberty thots. Don’t touch that tab!
My Life as a Civiltarian
I remember listening, years ago, to the “Bad Quaker” podcast with Ben Stone. In Stone’s view, the Non-Aggression Principal, or NAP, imposed no moral limits on what one might do do a home invader. After all, this person initiated the use of force against you. Stone seemed positively gleeful about the idea of capturing someone, as if this circumstance converted the NAP into a blank check for glorious vengeance.
I disagree, strongly, with this interpretation of the NAP. But I can see how the Bad Quaker arrived at it, given that the NAP is generally presented alone, unaccompanied by a fully-blown ethics of transgression and reparation. This allows for extreme interpretations. On the one hand, any provocation could be seen as unlimited license to get medieval on someone’s ass. On the other, you have people who want our arms figuratively tied behind our backs until our opponents have literally tied our arms behind our backs, at which point, yeah…
Morality aside (for now!), neither approach is compatible with civilization, if that’s something you value, which certainly I do. For years I described myself as a “civiltarian”, which was my own way of adding social agar to the thin stew of libertarian negativism. In other words: The Good Life, and good societies, depend on more than minimal respect for property rights. They depended on holding doors open for old ladies, and not screaming “Nazi!” at everyone you disagree with.
Civiltarianism is libertarianism plus the feeling that Ben Stone’s lust for vengeance is unseemly at best. It’s a moral conscience that’s shocked by statements like this by Tho Bishop of the Mises Institute:
Beyond the labels
I no longer describe myself as either a libertarian or a civiltarian. Not because I’ve decided civility is irrelevant, or because I reject the NAP as an ethical baseline for a just society, but because neither provides a roadmap to freedom, and I’m much more interested in freedom than in the NAP or even civility. This was the point of Chapter 4 of Breakup!, “The Laissez-faire Road to Serfdom”.
That chapter begins with a thought experiment, or more properly a parable, about recognizing the reality of your situation, and adapting to that reality. In times of peace, shooting someone in the head as they run away is completely unacceptable. In times of war, that’s not so clear.
To the extent that libertarianism is a moral philosophy (and not just economic prescriptivism), it’s a peacetime philosophy. It recognizes your right to self defense, but doesn’t help one bit in formulating acceptable (or effective!) strategies when free market forces no longer dominate. Yes, Ayn Rand can collect her social security checks without contradiction, but can she slit her bosses throat if he fires her to carry out the federal government’s vaccine mandate?
Of course not, right? But why? And what can she do to fight back?
The case for partial-entailment consequentialism (PEC)
I no longer describe myself as a civlitarian. To those with the patience to discuss such things, I now describe myself as a consequentialist. Or, more precisely, as an Anarcho-Amish-Consequentailist. To unpack those first two terms in brief, “Anarcho” as in I desire the elimination of all state-level mafias; “Amish” in that I believe in the importance of: 1. Reducing the power of private mafias through culturally imposed limits to their size, 2. Strong social norms that reinforce community, and 3. Recognizing that our ability to sanely assimilate new technologies is at a breaking point, for more about that see:
By “Consequentailist” I don’t mean utilitarian, or that “the ends justify the means”. As is often noted, the means tend to become the ends. I mean that the first ethical consideration in taking any action has to be, “What are the likely outcomes”. This includes the immediate outcomes, which have to be weighed into the mix and not brushed away.
The “likely outcomes” part is why I’m calling this partial-entailment consequentialism. As I put it years ago in my Manifesto for Statsblog, “morality needs probability”. This is both obvious and baked into our legal system, but also completely ignored all the time.
PEC is the recognition that in evaluating the ethics of an action, you need to weigh the expectable outcomes. Suppose that, like me, you live in a place that has a problem with invasive green iguanas. Everyone agrees that it’s good to kill them. And yet, if someone went to a public park where iguanas climbed tree trunks in search of flower blossoms, and closed their eyes and spun around with the trigger of a machine gun pulled, they might pick some off, but the positive consequence of hitting iguanas would be far outweighed by the chance of shooting a human. Anyone who does this should go right to jail.
The decision to fire off a machine gun in a public park doesn’t guarantee that anyone will get shot, but ethically we judge that it partially entails that, in the Jaynesian sense that flipping a coin partially entails you getting heads, and partially entails you getting tails. What matters in the case of the mad iguana killer isn’t the exact probability that a civilian gets killed — a probability that isn’t computable anyway. What matters is that 1. The probability is way too high, and 2. It’s is higher than it needs to be, even if you assume some non-zero level of civilian risk is acceptable to kill iguanas.
Let me unpack that last part. You may know John Maynard Keynes as destroyer of worlds, one-half of the epic rap battle between opposing economists.
I know Keynes mostly as a point of evidence that sexuality is a choice, and for his rather well executed exploration of non-numerical probabilities. To understand these, suppose you are the very first company to insure one of those “hole-in-one wins a million dollars” contests with a randomly chosen golf fan teeing off (and yes, insuring those is a business). If so, you may not have much precision in your guess of the odds, but you can say, with near certainty, that a hole-in-one from 20 yards away is more likely than a hole-in-one from 200 yards. One tee location partially entails a million dollar payout much more than the other.
When it comes to ethics, these ordinal probabilities are often all we have, but they are often all we need. We can’t say exactly how likely our iguana killer is to bag a baby instead of a lizard, but we can say that he could lower the odds of collateral damage by opening his eyes and targeting the iguanas one by one, among many other measures. The fact that he didn’t take those measures, in the absence of any reason to believe the consequences of taking those measures would be even more dangerous, is enough to convict him morally and legally.
Getting back to our NAP
The NAP is designed to work well in circumstances where entailment is absolute, or so close to absolute that we can round up to certainty. In the free land of Ancapistan, someone’s refusal to leave a store when asked, or their decision to steal from that store, is a NAP violation. Full stop.
But now let’s muddy the waters. Suppose you are being kicked out of a government building that’s closing. You paid for that building with your taxes, taken from you by force. Do you have a moral obligation to leave when they tell you to? Could you walk out with a stool or is that stealing? If the security guard tries to kick you out, what can you morally do to resist?
Here the NAP can barely guide us at all. Or it could be pointed to as justification for a Ben Stone rampage, or for meek obedience.
PEC is a much better framework for evaluating actions in muddy waters. Ask not what the NAP says, ask what the likely consequences of your actions wold be. Even if you can get away with walking out with the stool, what will this accomplish? If you get arrested for refusing to leave, will that lead to you getting the taxes back that were taken from you to build that building? Almost certainly not. Will your defiant action spark an uprising that brings down a corrupt bureaucracy? Perhaps. That would depended entirely on the specifics of your circumstances, which is something you have to judge as best as you can.
The point of PEC is that results doesn’t have to be inevitable for a justification to have weight, nor do the abuses you are facing have to be deadly.
I think I can pinpoint the exact moment the NAP completely broke down as a guide for anything and most libertarians realized it, at least intuitively. This moment created a schism in the liberty movement that cannot and will not be mended, because beltway libertarians are now so thoroughly domesticated that they would never bite their Washington masters with enough force to break the skin, no matter how badly they’re abused. When the Catonians are hauled off in locked boxcars, they’ll tell fellow passenger not to smash open the padlock because it’s someone else’s property.
The moment I’m referring to is when an angry women in NYC aggressively, and violently, attacked a hostess who refused to let part of her party enter because they didn’t have vax passports. I don’t think many people wanted to see the hostess hurt, but we recognized a basic fact about the moment: The consequences of a few dozen aggressive altercations like this would be bad for hostess (and restaurant staff generally), but they might bring an end to the use of restaurant staff as state agents for the enforcement of medicalized segregation. The consequences of not stopping these policies now are either much more subjugation later, or much more violence later, and likely both. We’re not weighing a hostesses black eye against a perfectly NAP-compliant anarchotopia, we’re weighing it against the likely outcome of not throwing a few punches.
To be as clear as possible here. I’m not advocating for violence nor weighing in on the morality of specific acts of aggression. Instead I’m pointing out two things: 1. Companies and individuals that act to enforce the state’s dictates are not private actors (see my section on “The myth of private business” in the aforementioned Chapter 4 of Breakup!), and 2. In such muddy waters, the proper (and in my view only!) way to evaluate the ethics of an action is through the lens of PEC.
There’s one more piece of the puzzle we need, and sadly I don’t have it. We need that fully-blown ethics of transgression and reparation I mentioned at the beginning of this article. We need a way to understand, at the moral and practical level, atonement and restitution in cases where there is no pure victim or pure aggressor. In my view, even if that aggressive lady who harmed this hostess did so in a way that was maximally likely to change the city’s evil policy, and even if it was done with consideration of minimizing harm within that context, we still have to recognize that the hostess was harmed. We need a way to talk about restitution, maybe even bilaterally. The hostess has her own harm to make up for!
Even better, our libertarian philosophy, to be complete as an ethical guide that’s workable for real human societies, needs the idea of atonement. That’s way out of the scope of this article.
Never be useful to the regime
I don’t want to leave the topic without recognizing just how broken the beltway libertarian response has been as of late. Consider this statement released by Reason magazine on Twitter:
The is intellectual midgitry, an expression of stunted brains incapable of recognizing the moment we are in, or the need to weigh the likely consequences of different laws, both violations of the NAP when viewed from the lens of an already perfectly free society.
The reality of our world is that the consequences of the vaccine mandates are millions of people forced to lose their jobs, and millions more compelled to inject a substance into their body they don’t want and in many, many cases, don’t need. The consequence of the anti-mandate mandate is that some companies may need to find a less-optimal way to keep their workforce safe from a particular disease. One sets a new precedent about the level of control the federal government can exercise over companies and their employees, the other reinforces an existing precedent of the states power to compel non-discrimination, while at the same time, if it succeeds, expanding the ability of states to set policies that go against federal law.
These two mandates only look equally oppressive if your brain is broken. For anyone capable of recognizing context and (likely) consequences, a “pure” application here of the NAP is not only impossible, it’s nonsensical, fantastical, a road to serfdom paved by adherence to cowardly pacifism.
This article is my attempt to explain, to those who haven’t yet recognized it, why every important voice in the liberty movement has come to understand that we can’t laissez-faire our way out of the rapidly advancing tyranny. We can balkanize, and we can fight back. But we can’t pretend there’s any value left in pulling a red flag labeled “NAP violation” out of our pocket and throwing it on the field.
I’ll give the last word here to Sarah, aka “Liberty Thot”: