Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Liberty, Violence, and Self-Ownership

Is there a mutual relationship between increasing liberty and declining violence?  Does the history of violence show a pattern of decline?  If so, is this history of declining violence largely explained by a history of increasing liberty?  If so, is this a Darwinian process of biological and cultural evolution towards liberty and away from violence?  And if all this is so, does this provide historical confirmation for classical liberalism?

These are the main questions I want to answer this week at a Liberty Fund conference in Tucson on "Liberty and Violence: From Auberon Herbert to Steven Pinker."  We will begin with some readings from Auberon Herbert (1838-1906) that introduce these questions.  (The Liberty Fund collection of Herbert's writings as edited by Eric Mack is available as part of Liberty Fund's Online Library of Liberty.  Mack's Introduction to the book is also available as an article online.)

Herbert begins with the first principle of classical liberalism--self-ownership.  (In some previous posts, I have traced this liberal principle of self-ownership back to Richard Overton and John Locke.)  Herbert then defends the principle of liberty as opposed to the principle of force by arguing that liberty respects each person's ownership of himself and his property, while force allows some people to own the persons and property of others.  The fundamental question in human life is the choice between liberty and force--between a social life based on individual self-ownership and voluntary cooperation or a social life based on some people owning others and enforcing compulsory cooperation.  (In some previous posts, I have indicated how Abraham Lincoln's reasoning in the debate over slavery manifests this choice between liberty and force, and how Lincoln's choice for liberty of self-ownership constitutes his classical liberalism.)

Herbert makes two arguments for self-ownership.  His first argument is for self-ownership as a logical inference.
"Pure critical reason obliges us to believe in self-ownership.  Men either own themselves or they do not.  If they do, nothing remains to be said.  If they do not, then they cannot possibly own and control each other, so long as they do not first of all own their own selves.  It would be like using a lever, where no point of support existed. (372)
His second argument is for self-ownership as a fact of human nature.
"Nature is on the side of self-ownership, self-guidance.  We see that each man and each woman is individually endowed by nature with a separate, complete, and perfect machinery for self-guidance--the mind to guide, the body to act under its guidance; and we hold, as a great natural fact as well as a great moral truth--probably from a human point of view the greatest of all facts and the greatest of all truths--that each man owns his body and mind, and thus cannot rightfully own the body and mind of another man." (371)
As I have argued in some previous posts, this Lockean conception of individual personhood as embodied self-conscious awareness of, and emotional concern for, the survival and well-being of the body can now be confirmed as manifest in the human nervous system as a product of mammalian evolution.  If we follow Antonio Damasio's "somatic marker hypothesis" and Bud Craig's neuroanatomical explanation of conscious self-awareness in human beings, we can identify the self-ownership of the person as the activity of the anterior insular cortex of the brain in constituting the subjective awareness of the individual in caring for one's self and for others to whom one is attached.

Like Locke, Adam Smith, and other liberals, Herbert sees the self-ownership as including not only one's own body and mind, but also one's property as acquired without force and fraud or inherited from those who rightfully acquired it (369-70).

To freely exercise our self-ownership, we need to protect ourselves from those who would use force or fraud to take control of our persons or property without our consent.  Fraud is force in disguise, because it is getting something from someone without his consent (155, 372).

Although force is wrong in itself, in denying the self-ownership of the person who is forced, force is justified in self-defense, Herbert argues, because there is a right to resist violence with violence.  Where there is no centralized government to keep the peace and punish aggressors, the natural right of self-defense against aggression can easily lead to a state of perpetual war.  To escape this state of war, individuals can consent to establish a government to use force in protecting their liberty from the threats of unjustified force.  Without citing Thomas Hobbes, Herbert thus makes a Hobbesian argument for government by consent of the governed to escape the war of all against all in the state of nature.  But unlike Hobbes, Herbert argues that the natural purpose of government--securing the liberty of self-ownership--puts severe limits on the power of government (141-42, 312-13, 371-72, 375-77, 383, 389-90).  Indeed, in contrast to Hobbes, Herbert argues for a "voluntary state" rather than a "compulsory state" (389-92).

Herbert's advocacy of "voluntaryism" was interpreted by many people of his time as anarchism.  But Herbert insisted that he was not an anarchist but a "governmentalist," because he thought the securing of liberty required a government limited to that end.  He thought the anarchists were confused because they did not see that anarchy as "no government" was not possible, and that what most anarchists sought was actually a highly decentralized and irregular form of government exercised by informal groups and customary laws (374-83).

As I have indicated in some previous posts, Herbert's point here about anarchism is illustrated by anarchists like Peter Leeson who argue that anarchy can be better than predatory government in places like Somalia.  Leeson contends that stateless society with self-governance through customary clan law and clan militias has been better for Somalia than the predatory government of a military dictator that was overthrown.  And yet, Leeson indicates, the best situation for Somalia would be to have a liberal state to provide public goods while minimizing predatory exploitation.  Like Leeson, most anarchists are not really arguing for "no government," but for stateless societies with no centralized state governments, but with customary self-governance, as superior to exploitative centralized states.  And, in fact, through most of our evolutionary history, we have lived in stateless societies, or in what Hobbes called "the government of small families."

The most common objection to Herbert's classical liberal conception of government limited to securing liberty against force is that a more expansive form of government is necessary to limit force.  Herbert recognizes this as the argument of the socialist:
"It is this very question of force that justifies us in what we are doing.  We want to diminish the use of force in the world.  The rich unscrupulous man is in reality the man who uses force, and it is the exercise of force on his part that we are seeking to restrain by force on our part.  The capitalist who uses force toward his work-people, compelling them to accept his terms, is as much to be restrained by force, in our opinion, as the man who helps himself by violence or fraud to the property of other people" (143-44).
 Herbert's response to this objection turns on his distinction between "direct compulsion" and "indirect compulsion." (145-47).  (Friedrich Hayek tried to make a similar point in distinguishing "coercion" and "power" in The Constitution of Liberty, chapter 9.)  The socialist is not really reducing compulsion, because he is using direct compulsion in the attempt to reduce indirect compulsion. 

Indirect compulsion requires consent, while direct compulsion does not.  So, for example, when employers and employees are negotiating wages and the terms of employment, both sides are subject to indirect compulsion by the other side, because employees can be threatened with loss of their jobs, and employers can be threatened with loss of their best employees.  Friends and lovers can use indirect compulsion in making unfair demands on one another as conditions for their love or friendship.  In general, we all need to negotiate for the cooperation of others who can indirectly compel us to consent to their terms for cooperation. 

Indirect compulsion can be used in unfair ways to harm people, and we can try to use moral persuasion to minimize the abuse of such unfairness.  But indirect compulsion is a condition of life that cannot ever be eliminated totally.  By contrast, we can strive to eliminate direct compulsion from life.

Herbert's objection to socialism is that it rests upon force or direct compulsion.  But in some of his writing, he distinguishes "force socialism" and "voluntary socialism."  If socialists want to voluntarily form a socialist community, they can do so in a free society.  "Under liberty, you may give away your own liberty, if you think good, and be a socialist, or anything else you like; under socialism, you must be socialist, and may not make a place for yourself in any free system" (230).

Although majoritarian democracy is superior to socialism or other forms of authoritarian oppression, democratic rule by majorities is a "confused mixture of force and liberty," because a democratic majority can become tyrannical in its exercise of force (128-30, 230)

Herbert sees the history of liberty and force as a progressive evolutionary history towards declining force and increasing liberty, because he thinks that liberty allows the free development of individual energy and genius through spontaneous enterprises of voluntary cooperation, which will be more productive than coercive systems based on force (224-25.  Thus, cultural evolution by natural selection favoring greater human survival and well-being will generally favor liberty over force.  This shows the "universal law of progress" (362).  James Payne's History of Force develops this conception of history, and Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature elaborates Payne's history of declining violence and increasing liberty and peace.

And yet, Herbert and Payne differ from Pinker in that Pinker is silent about what Herbert and Payne regard as the one form of modern violence that remains to be abolished before peace and liberty can triumph--compulsory taxation.  "Once admit the right of the state to take, and the state becomes the real owner of all property," and thus the real owner of all persons (406).  Herbert contends:
"Compulsory taxation is the great typical enemy of all voluntary action.  We see in it the very citadel of compulsion, the chief instrument with which every encroachment is carried out, the chief bribe by which men are induced to submit to these encroachments, and an institution which by its very existence preaches to men every day and every hour that they are not really sovereign over themselves, their faculties, and their property, but are subject to the will of others--placed at the mercy of these others to be used or not used according to their caprices, their superstitions, or their selfishness." (407)
So we are left wondering whether "voluntary taxation" is a crucial condition for the widest liberty and self-ownership.

Other pertinent posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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