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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 03, 1999

Posted to XCobra's List, 03 June 1999

Note: this email replies to commentary on my thread, The Role of the State.

Larken Rose wrote: I assume you mean non-state theft when you say socialists oppose theft.

Ok, we're not going to get very far if we start messing around with the meaning of words for persuasive purposes. By "theft" I (and most other people) means "the unlawful taking of personal property". Taxation is lawful, therefore, taxation is not theft.

It may be argued that taxation is wrong; that's fine, and we could debate the point. But simply calling it "theft" assumes this argument without actually stating it, leaving the opponent with no grounds or premises on which to question the conclusion.

So let's not play make-believe semantics, and let's stick with ordinary uses of words, OK?

Basically (correct me if I'm wrong), you say that the proper job of "government" is to decide when force should be used to deal with a conflict of wills.

Close. The proper role of government is to arbitrate disputes of wills, enforcing that arbitration with force if necessary.

We do not want to assume that any decision of government is accepted by the parties in question only because the government backs it up with force. In many cases, the parties willingly accept the government's arbitration, because it is the only means of resolving an intractable dispute without force.

Why would you (or could you) want someone OTHER than you to decide when force is justified?

If I thought my own personal point of view were the only one in the world, then perhaps I might take this stance. But in fact I know that when I and someone else became embroiled in a dispute, that my point of view might not always prevail.

Indeed, if everybody took the same attitude (that no OTHER person should resolve disputes) then no dispute would ever be resolved, because in all cases there are at least two parties to a dispute, each of whom wants their own way.

I can see why you wouldn't try to enforce what YOU think, because of practically and/or self-preservation.

Well I would try to enforce my point of view, but there are limits on the practicality of this. I don't have the time nor the energy to go around every day trying to force my views of the world on other people. I am content from the point of view of practicality and personal safety (because remember, the OTHER is also trying to enforce their point of view) to delegate such matters to a neutral authority.

By analogy: in hockey, the rules and the referees are the 'government' of the game. Suppose we tried to play hockey without them. People wouldn't even bother trying to score goals - they would simply declare 'I win' and then enforce their point of view. Such hockey games would be dangerous for the participants, and futile besides.

Even if the participants agree upon the rules, a referee is often necessary, because people break the rules (these are called penalties). Both sides accept the need to defer to the referee (and even to pay the referee for his time) because without enforcement of the rules, hockey degenerates to a state of there being no rules, which again is dangerous and futile.

But is it even POSSIBLE for you to accept as valid any judgment that "government" makes about what should be done? I cannot, be sheer will, change what I believe is right and wrong. If I asked you (just for an experiment) to believe that mass murder is good, COULD you believe that? If not, how can "laws" of the state CHANGE what you think is righteous?

You can accept a judgement even though you think it is wrong.

Again - the fundamental recognition here is that the world is inhabited by other people, and that other people sometimes disagree with you. It really boils down to two choices:

  • you can fight them all the time (with no hope of winning - there are too many), or
  • you can accept a dispute-solving mechanism and accept judgements which from time to time go against your interests, beliefs and even morality

I kept expecting you to get to the obvious one, but you didn't. Socialists believe that me HAVING something constitutes "harm" against someone who doesn't.

No, this is a straw man argument. No socialist that I know of believes that the mere having of something causes harm.

It is all right for one person to have something that another doesn't.

Where the 'having' of things becomes a harm is when the one person's having of things leaves the other person without the means of survival.

Fred can have more food than Bill, but Fred cannot have all the food, because then Bill dies of starvation, which is a harm.

To them, someone NOT hiring them is a violation of their "freedom."

Again, this is a straw man argument. No socialist would argue for such an absurd principle.

I have been 'not hired' by many people without having considered it a violation of my freedom.

Being 'not hired' is a violation of one's freedom only if (1) the only way to survive is to be hired, and (2) the person was not hired.

They even use the looney "freedom to" rather than "freedom from" basis. For example, they often believe that "rights" includes things that require efforts of someone else. For me to have the "freedom to be well fed" requires that someone feed me (if I don't do it myself).

So it requires effort on the part of someone else. So what?

Would you argue that there is no requirement that you stop at a red light because it requires time and effort on your part?

Obviously not. Even though a red light is an inconvenience, you obey the signal because you know that nobody wins when you (and everyone else) try to force yourselves through a crowded intersection.

In a situation where there is a limited resource (in this case, space) and everybody has an equal need (in this case, to get to the other side) they only way forward is for people to alternate, giving up some of that limited resource even though it requires extra effort on their part.

What you are really saying is: "I should not have to make an effort to feed someone when they won't make such an effort themselves."

That's fair enough. It's like saying "why should I stop at red lights when nobody else has to."

And I agree, provided that, were they to make the effort, they could feed themselves.

Other people - if they can stop, should stop. Obviously, not everybody can stop - people with disabilities (eg., no brakes) cannot stop. People serving other social functions (eg., Fire Engines) can't stop (or at least, shouldn't).

In a similar fashion: if a person, with reasonable effort, could feed, house, and clothe himself, and yet chooses not to do so, then there should be no requirement on your part to feed, house or clothe that person.

But if a person who, despite his best efforts, could not feed, house or clothe himself, then you, if you have the means, have an obligation to feed, house or clothe that person.

Your failure to do so would result in the social equivalent of an intersection where nobody stops, which is why it is reasonable that society as a whole take steps, by force if hnecessary, to ensure that you (a) stop at red lights, and (b) contribute your fair shre to the feeding, housing and clothing of other members of society.

At this point every socialist I've debated goes into denial, because the freedom of the food-producing slave (the proper term for someone forced against their will to serve another) is shot.

Again, we have a case where language is being misused. A "slave" is a human with no rights, no property, and no freedom. A partial limitation on rights, property or freedom does not by that fact make a person a slave.

If you were to produce food, and receive none of it, then you would be a slave. But if you produce food, and give up some of it, but keep the rest, then you are not a slave.

Again, is it even possible for you to intentionally, morally AGREE with whatever the state comes up with? The state can "determine" it, or I can "determine" it myself.

... or it can be determined by some other person.

Why do individualists always assume they will win the fight which must ensue in a conflict of wills?

(And for that matter - why do they think it is inherently wrong for other people to group together to win such a fight? If the individualist insists on a fight, and will not compromise, then it is reasonable for me and my friends to get together. It's like the bully in the schoolyard who always steals everyone's lunch money - and then cries foul when the little kids get together, form a 'government', and make him give it all back.)

While there are reasons for me not to try to enforce my judgment, what reason could I possibly have (other than being schizophrenic and insane) for deciding to accept the state's "determination" as more legitimate than my own?

Because there are two choices:

  • accept the state's determination, or
  • get into a fight with other people

How do you arrive at what you believe? Unless you believe whatever the average belief of the people is, then how would what you just say have any bearing on what YOU think is just? "The people" has no will, and is not sentient. And the fact that lots of people may agree on something does not make it true or righteous.

Well we could debate the Gaia hypothesis, but that would be missing your point ;)

What you are asking is, how do we constitute a rule of law. And of course there is no simple and straightforward answer to that, though a number of different attempts have been made, with more or less success.

In the first instance, "the will of the people" is whatever all the people agree to. Of course, all the people never agree on anything; there is always a majority and a minority.

In the second instance, therefore, "the will of the people" is whatever the majority agrees to. A "majority" is fifty percent plus one.

In practise, however, we find that a majority of fifty percent plus one could never prevail against a determined minority of fifty percent minus one. Indeed, even minorities as small as ten percent can - if they are sufficiently agrieved - seriously disrupt a society.

Therefore - and all constitutional nations have done this - the degree of the majority required to enact a particular measure varies, depending on the importance of that type of measure to the affected minority.

Again - to return to the stop light analogy - if we simply accepted majority rule, then the stop lights on Main Street would always be green, while the stop lights on Side Street would always be red.

So we give the minority on Side Street more weight than their numbers would otherwise merit, and allow the light to be red on Main Street from time to time.

John Rawls ("A Theory of Justice") argues that the means by which this calculation could be enabled would be to determine what people would choose for, in the event that they did not know whether they would be in the majority or the minority.

Such a "blind contract" is not possible, but we can approach something like it by imagining ourselves in the place of people who are in the minority.

That sounds idealistic - and it is - and in practical terms what we have is a political climate in which the minority, if it feels it has been disadvantaged by the majority, causes (or threatans to cause) a disruption, and if that disruption is sufficient, the law is amended.

In previous eras (in in some nations today) the minority's means of causing a disruption typically meant riots, terrorism, and otherwise violent acts. More stable democracies enable minorities to non-violently cause a disruption through actions such as demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience.

They do? I happen to think that democracy by itself bites, as do most conservatives, libertarians, and the founders of this country.

I would be interested in survey results pointing to that conclusion. One wonders, for example, what they would prefer instead. Theocracy? Perpetual warfare?

As for the "founders of this country" - and here I assume you mean the United States - let us not forget that they drafted the constitution, laws, and other frameworks for democratic governance. It is extremely unlikely that they would draft and implement a democratic form of government if they thought "it bites".

There's an ingredient missing. Pressing buttons in booths is not the end of the socialist approach. The step the socialists don't mention very often is the INITATION OF VIOLENCE AGAINST THE NONVIOLENT in order to get the desired result. The opposite of free trade is not pressing buttons; it is INTERFERING by FORCE with free trade. The pressing buttons is only the ritual that supposedly legitimizes that force.

It is ironic that the very person who does not want disputes solved through democratic means complains that the other side uses force.

What else would he have people do?

'Free trade' is a pretty good example of this.

Is it restricting 'free trade' if we prevent the highwayman from jumping out and saying 'Your money or your life!"

Is it restricting 'free trade' is we prevent a person from using inaccurate weights and measures?

Is it restricting 'free trade' if we prevent advertisers from making false claims about their products?

The problem with the concept of 'free trade' is that (almost) everybody agrees that there ought to be some limits on economic transactions. Highway robbery, fraud and misrepresentation are usually disallowed, even under the most liberal economy.

I feel pretty confident arguing that there ought to be some limits on economic transactions. Murder, extortion, torture - these are all to be outlawed.

And - would the person who thinks murder is OK really have a legitimate complaint if I used force to prevent that from happening?

The bugbear is in defining what economic practises should be allowed, and what economic practises should be disallowed. We would do well to begin by throwing such loaded terms as 'free trade' to one side and ask what we would or would not accept.

Incidentally, you left out another ingredient: HONEST force. If someone tries to rob me, I can do something OTHER than vote or spend money: I can shoot them. And, unlike many statists I've met (socialist and otherwise), I don't have to euphamize the force I advocate, by calling it "taxation," "law enforcement," etc.

Force is force.

If I am starving and try to rob you, in my eyes, that's "honest force", even if in your eyes, your defense of your goods is "honest force".

I have no qualms about calling it force.

If you aren't willing to play by the rules - if you won't stop at red lights, pay your fair share for roads, and help preserve social stability by feeding the poor and respecting the rights of minorities, then yes I will use force.

Specifically, I and several million of my friends will gang up on you and make you play nice.

Because from our point of view, it is honest force.

If you don't stop at red lights, some of us get killed, and so it is reasonable for us to use force to make you stop when you're supposed to.

If you don't pay your fair share for the roads and other infrastructure, then our society as a whole is poorer and some of us starve, and so it is reasonable for us to use force to make you pay your share.

If you don't help feed to poor, or if you don't respect the rights of minorities, then they will cause social disruption - the violent kind - causing some of us to get killed, so it's reasonable for us to use force to make you help keep society stable.

I don't see the unreasonableness of this position. It amounts to a very simple proposition:

You can't have it your own way all the time.

Indeed, the onus is on you to show us why you're so special that your point of view, personal morality, or whatever, should always prevail. If you can't - then you should be prepared to compromise like the rest of us.

If you and I were alone on an island, and I build a hut, does the presence of that hut ENTITLE you to the use of it? Does the mere EXISTENCE of stuff you want, in some way mean you have a RIGHT to it?

Depends on the island, the hut, and me.

If the island could support only one hut (perhaps its really small, or perhaps there's only enough material for one hut) and if a hut was necessary for survival, then if both of us can use the hut, then I am entitled to a share of the hut.

If the island could support more than one hut, and if I was not prevented by force or accident from building one, then I could build one of my own and thus would have no claim on yours.

If I didn't need a hut to survive, then I have no claim on yours.

Even if I need the hut to survive, but the hut only supports one person, then I have no claim on yours (ie., you are not required to give up your life so that I may live).

But remember - even saying 'I have a right to' or 'I am entitled to' use the hut presupposes a rule of law .

If you don't agree to be constrained by rule of law - then I'll simply take the hut if I can, by rule of might.

Or put another way: your security in ownership of the hut depends on your agreeing to principles of ownership generally. I'll leave your hut alone if you promise not to steal my food. If you aren't willing to make even such a basic promise as that - well, then, your hut is fair game.

No. This is patently untrue. If that were the case, that everyone who VOTES for the state to rob me to pay for their bad ideas, would also feel personally JUSTIFIED in doing the same thing (though they may not want to for practical reasons).

The word "rob" is like the word "theft" and is similarly misused in this context.

There is no principle which states that everything a person does, or even what a person wants to do, is what a person feels justified in doing.

Moreover, there is no principle which states that support for a government, is therefore support for every act of that government.

I challenge you to find ANY Republican who thinks he has a personal right to force me to go kill someone for him (as opposed to believing in the federal "draft"), or any Democrat who thinks he has the personal right to take my money by force to pay for bad "art."

But why would I suppose that the rights and responsibilities of individuals is the same as the rights and responsibilities of a government, even if the government is made up of individuals.

I do not believe that the height and width of a brick is the same as the height and width of a brick wall, even though the wall is made entirely out of bricks.

An entity which is a collective - any collective, be it a government, a society, a hockey team, a jury, or a mod - has rights and responsibilities - and a host of other properties - which are distinct from the individuals which comprise that collective.

A person cannot lift ten tons; a hundred people pulling together can; it would be folly to say that, since a single person cannot lift ten tons, that a hundred people wought not be able to either.

And so some collectives - such as nations - may require that some of its members sacrifice their lives or their property, even though individual in such a collective could do so.

I am not obligated to make an agreement with you. If I propose the agreement "I will pay you $60 a day to mow lawns, under the condition that you not say anything political," then you have the option to ACCEPT or DECLINE. You do NOT have the right to accept, and then decide to change MY side of the agreement. If any employer tells an employee to do ANYTHING, and the employee refuses, the employer has the absolute right to fire him. Similarly (but less often considered), if the employee makes a demand of the employer, and the employer refuses, the employee has the absolute right to QUIT.

If the only way for me to survive is though entering into employment agreements, then quitting is not a viable option. If quitting is not a viable option, then employment conditions which require that I sacrifice some of my freedoms as a condition of employment are in fact requirements that I sacrifice some of my freedoms in order to survive, in which case they are not freedoms at all.

Because in a modern industrial society it is not possible to make a living for ypourself off the land (all the land is owned by someone else) it is always necessary to enter into employment agreements in order to survive, either as an employee, contract hire, or fee-for-service arrangement.

A society in which you say to people, essentially, "You may live, if you don't say anything political" is one where freedom of speech does not exist.

Freedom of speech is one of those rights for which a determined minority is likely to agitate very strenuously, and in support of which they will cause considerable disruption to a society. For that reason, because jobs are essential to survival, governments limit the ability of employers to curtail freedoms such as freedon of speech.

Good example of the euphamism referred to above. "Be provided"? By what? By other people having their labor or fruits of their labor taken from them BY FORCE, without their permission.

If you want to put it that way - sure.

I and my friends are a lot safer in societies where most people have an education. My use of force to protect me from the violence of uneducated thugs is honest force, as you would put it.

No. The truth does not change, and the opinions of people do not alter it. When most people support evil (as they do now under the guise of "law"), most people are WRONG.

The true may be immutable and still lie in the middle

>From where? The magic Capital-Tree? Or are you advocating that people's property BE TAKEN FROM THEM BY BRUTE FORCE? That ought to be enough to get things started. :)

Again - if you are going to drive like a maniac, disregarding red lights, I will stop you by force.

If you refuse to participate in the necessary social and economic infrastructure needed for a stable (and safe) society, then I will use force again here too.

I have no qualms about that. My rights and freedoms are just as important as yours. I am equally in my right to defend them. If in the defense of these rights and freedoms join with other people and you don't - that just makes me smarter (and more powerful) than you.

So the choice is yours: are you willing to sit down and negotiate a reasonable abridgement of all of our rights so we can live in peace? Or do you prefer to let the rule of the jungle prevail?


Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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