Dada is the sun, Dada is the egg. Dada is the Police of the Police.


Another question for libertarians

NOTE: This post is from last Wednesday. I wanted to move it to the front because over the last week or so there has been some very interesting and enlightening posts in the comments section, most of them the result of back-and-forth between Micha Ghertner of Catallarchy and my favorite Marx-reading teddy bear Bensonbear in which they attempt to sort out some of the issues raised in this post. If you're interested in this stuff, you should definitely check it out.


In a previous post, I created a fictional scenario that I thought posed something of a puzzle for those who espouse libertarianism. In it, my followers and I moved to Wyoming to begin a small community that we called Dadaland. In our community, we had certain rules that had to be obeyed; if you didn't want to play by the rules, so to speak, you were told that Dadaland is not for you. Only people who agreed to obey would come to Dadaland, and even then, if they changed their minds, they were free to leave. But if they stayed, they had to do what our system of rules said they did.

I asked libertarians two questions about this scenario:

1. Would you have any objection to I, and the other Dadalanders, conducting ourselves in the manner described above? That is, in establishing our small community, have we violated anyone's rights or in any way trespassed such that even a libertarian would say we have acted unlawfully? Keep in mind that we forced no one to join us, and we force no one to stay with us.

2. If not, then how is Dadaland relevantly different than the U.S.? That is, why is it okay for Dadalanders to dictate that everyone must share, and look out for one another, etc., but not for the U.S. government to create programs like welfare, or Social Security, or to regulate business?

Most libertarians seemed to have no objection to Dadaland, but denied that the situation with regard to the U.S. was the same.

The most relevant difference, it seems, is the way in which I acquired the territory that became known as Dadaland and the way in which the U.S. came to occupy its territory. Noting that in my scenario I had bought the land, Micha Ghertner of Catallarchy said:

The key word here is "bought." The U.S. government never legitimately acquired the land it claims dominion over, neither through sale nor squatting. Nor did it ever gain unanimous consent from those it claims dominion over. Therefore, it is the government that must justify itself to us, and not the other way around.

I argued that my buying the land wasn't particularly crucial to the scenario; I could have inherited it, or just claimed it (if it was not being used), or whatever. Micha responded:

However you legitimately acquire your land is fine, so long as legitimacy is met. The U.S. government does not enjoy such legitimacy and never did.

Fair enough. But is this really what the entire libertarian philosophy comes down to--the claim that the U.S. government didn't acquire the land legitimately?

David Killoren, who is the author of the excellent philosophy-oriented blog E.G., points out that this principle produces bizarre conclusions:

Your view, I take it, is that the way in which the government originally acquired the land has bearing on the rights of the people who presently occupy the land. Is there a statute of limitations here? Would this still be the case 500 or 1000 years after the original acquisition of the land?

Consider two scenarios:

1. Dada and his followers build a community on unoccupied land. 1000 years pass.

2. Schmada, a Dada-imitator, and his followers chase a farmer off his land and build a community very similar to the one Dada and his followers build. 1000 years pass.

It is now the year 3005. Dadaland and Schmadaland are virtually identical communities. Taxes are collected in the same way; services are provided in the same way; etc. The *only* difference between Dadaland and Schmadaland is that 1000 years ago, the great-great-great-great grandchildren of the present citizens of Dadaland acquired the land legitimately, whereas the great-great-great-great grandchildren of the present citizens of Schmadaland did not.

Do you believe that the people who live in Dadaland have different rights than the people who live in Schmadaland? ... The answer has got to be no. It would be extremely implausible to say that such a huge difference between persons' rights can obtain solely in virtue of the misdeeds of a bunch of commune-builders 1000 years ago.

Micha responded:

It does seem strange, but this conclusion directly follows from the definition of legitimacy and private property ownership. Legitimacy requires consent and justified acquisition of resources. Private property ownership entails the right to exclude. The length of time should have no bearing on either of these issues, and the Dadaland and Schmadaland societies must be distinguished, no matter how similar they may be in other respects, if the concepts of legitimacy and private property are to have any meaning.

So the libertarian has to bite the bullet and accept the consequences that David drew out? Micha seems not to want to bite this particular bullet, and thus would rather find something else to ground libertarianism other than strictly rights-based reasons:

I agree with part of Dada's criticism and believe that it is one of the major flaws in natural-rights libertarianism. And it is also one of many reasons why I have moved closer to consequentialism over time.

So an alternative grounding for libertarianism, and one which would avoid the strange conclusions of the Dadaland/Schmadaland scenario, would be on consequentialist grounds: i.e., libertarianism is the correct political philosophy, but it is not so as a direct consequence of natural rights, and is thus not true a priori; rather, it is correct because a society that followed libertarian principles would be an overall happier or better one than a society that was constructed according to the norms of another ideology. Thus the superiority of libertarianism is wholly contingent; it just happens to be the philosophy that works out best for us.

This is at the same time a more plausible argument than the a priori one, and also one that is going to be very difficult to make. So my question is: What basis do we have for concluding that libertarian societies produce all around better consequences than other types of societies? If libertarianism is to be justified on utilitarian / consequentialist arguments, we must have some reason to think that its enactment would make human life a more pleasant experience. So what reason do we have to think that this is so?

P.S. Sorry to David and Micha for using so much of their comments in this post; your stuff was just too interesting to leave in the comments section. I hope you don't mind.

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