April Fools 2013 Honorable Mention

Column by new Root Striker Kris Borer.

Exclusive to STR

In what was probably the most subtle April Fools joke of 2013, Matt Zwolinski posted an article called "Libertarianism and Pollution" on libertarianism.org that attacks the very foundation of the libertarian ethical system: the Non-Aggression Principle. Unfortunately, it was such a cleverly disguised ruse that not everyone will be able to appreciate his humor. They might even think that Zwolinski is just another Internet troll, and not the esteemed member of academia that he is. In order to prevent anyone from getting the wrong idea, this article is meant to help clarify what Zwolinski is talking about.

Zwolinski starts with an amusingly absurd definition of libertarianism, saying that libertarians are people who are usually in favor of liberty. Obviously, such a vague description would fail to distinguish libertarianism from all but the most tyrannical, authoritarian systems. However, its vagueness is necessary to draw in the unsuspecting and gullible. He then points out that there are certain libertarians, like Murray Rothbard, who think that one should not violate the rights of innocent people, ever. This contrast between narrow-minded, intolerant libertarians who follow the Non-Aggression Principle and more open-minded people like Alan Greenspan, is the crucial setup for the joke.

To this end, Zwolinski says that, "When we think about cases of rape, theft, or slavery . . . libertarianism’s absolute prohibition seems plausible on its face." Yet, he wonders aloud how practical such a principle can be. For example, he says that just having a fireplace to warm your home produces pollution that could potentially be a violation of the NAP. Zwolinski then slyly pretends not to have read Rothbard's "Law, Property Rights and Air Pollution", even though he quotes from it. Of course, we know that he is familiar with the passage where Rothbard says:

"If A is causing pollution of B’s air, and this can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, then this is aggression and it should be enjoined and damages paid in accordance with strict liability, unless A had been there first and had already been polluting the air before B’s property was developed. For example, if a factory owned by A polluted originally unused property, up to a certain amount of pollutant X, then A can be said to have homesteaded a pollution easement of a certain degree and type."

So, Zwolinski really knows that ethical analysis is not just a matter of did A send pollution onto B's property. It requires one to take into account not only the physical acts that take place, but also their historical context and the societal norms involved. It is a matter of resolving conflicts, which requires one to discover if conflict exists in the first place. Only then can it be decided who is responsible. As he is well aware, libertarians don't go from town to town scolding people just for having chimneys. They use understanding, in the Misesian sense, to figure out what is going on in any particular situation before trying to pass judgment.

To be sure, things get a little dull while he tries to fill page space with strawman arguments against Rothbard's "absolute prohibition on aggression [and] strongly subjectivist theory of value," or when he whimsically leaps from the idea that the NAP prohibits some pollution to the idea that the NAP prohibits all pollution. Again, it is not that Zwolinski has no conception of how to apply the NAP to solve ethical problems (or even how to define it). He is merely putting on a little show in preparation for the finale.

So what is the punchline? If Zwolinski was able to equivocate enough that the reader followed along uncritically, he then springs the conclusion on them: The only choice a libertarian has is to ditch the Non-Aggression Principle in favor of utilitarianism. At this point, many libertarians will laugh and say, "Oh Matt, you had me for a second." All in good fun. However, what about those poor sobs who have all of this go over their heads? Will they cry out that Zwolinski is doing a great disservice to the cause by spreading his confused interpretation of deontological libertarianism? Will they burn the midnight oil pointing out the flaws in his arguments? One can imagine the rampant indignation that might occur if this little prank gets out of hand. Hopefully, with the help of this article, not too many will take him seriously.

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kborer's picture
Columns on STR: 2


KenK's picture

To me, picking a fight over the arcane minutea of libertarian dogma seems like a losers game, unless of course you're really into it. Especially so if the writer in question is a university-level academic philosopher as well. Nitpicking is what they do for a living after all, and as has been noted, "academics get paid for being clever, not for being right." However, if it rankles you that much it is probably much better to get it out of your system by saying so and why. So in that sense, the rebuttal is quite good.
“These tiny radical Marxist[*] parties", says another blogger, "usually have no more than 10 members and no chance at ever being the revolutionary vanguard. Yet they endlessly bicker with each other over arcane points of doctrine and the proper interpretation of various texts by the great masters of old. Pay no attention to the direct parallels with religion here. They are just coincidental and mean nothing. Really.” [In A Mirror Darkly, Alternative Right]
My conclusion is that Cato Institute fellow and featured blogger though Dr. Zwolinski may be, he's in the end just one guy standing on a digital soap box voicing his opinions, and who only represents himself and maybe a few others at best. Small comfort when you're pissed, but that's life in the blogosphere, eh?
* Substitute libertarian, anarcho-capitalist, Austrian economic, Misean, Rothbardian, Nozickian, Objectivist, or whatever splinter or faction strikes your fancy in place of "Marxist" and Enoch's observation still applies.

kborer's picture

As a movement grows, the work that needs to be done changes. Libertarianism is so big now that it is useful to spend some time defending the definition. It's bad enough having statists trying to coopt the movement, let alone people who are sincere, like Dr. Z.

GeoffreyTransom's picture

The Zwolinski article was a case study in the idiocy that is generated when philosophers try to 'do' economics: that is not a slight on philosophy per se (it's really sort of like economics for the innumerate) - there have been many very bright philosophers who have contributed greatly to the way mankind views his place in the world.

But (and there's always a but) when they get to pontificating on the dismal science, they are all at sea. They don't have the time, the technical proficiency, or the inclination to properly come to grips with the 'central' literature in ANY branch of economics: after all, it is hard enough for a trained economist to get his head around the central literature in some key branches of economics - e.g., Public Choice and/or Public Finance and/or Modern Micro/Macro - and that's without considering that nobody who properly understands utilitarianism can defend it in good faith, yet it underlies most 'standard' macro/micro-based analytical frameworks.

For example, folks who upvote utilitarian resolutions to some or other 'public goods' problem usually make at least two rookie errors:
(1) they forget that in order to sum across individuals (and time), you have to have cardinal, interpersonally-comparable measures of utility; and
(2) they ignore Arrow's (1950) Impossibility Theorem, which makes it clear that there is no selection method that will result in a political class that accurately reflects 'social preferences' or the 'general will', even when preferences are completely static (i.e., they have no 'time dimension' and do not change in response to new information).

Now (2) is important, as the 'social welfare' function is the thing that the State is supposed to maximise (it's properly a social welfare functionAL, since it is multiperiod and is almost certainly not time-separable: what happens now affects what happens at all future dates); and
(1) makes summation of utility across individuals (and across time) impossible and further stymies (2).

Bear in mind that up to this point we have not even touched the idea that the State is comprised of actors who have their own (private) objectives: this is the "principal-agent problem" canvassed by Rees in 2 seminal contributions in 1985, and is just one of the many problems associated with what happens when the State arises.

AS I pointed out in one of my comments on the article, the principal-agent problem is the first in a 'cascade' of similar problems that all tend to force the "state imposed outcome" even FARTHER from the (inherently flawed) utilitarian optimum - my (still partial) list was

(1) the principal-agent problem (whereby political actors have their own objectives, which are not necessarily co-terminous with society's);
(2) adverse selection (whereby the wrong sorts of people are attracted to unearned [political] power);
(3) goal drift (whereby the bureaucracy rapidly finds new justifications for expanding itself);
(4) perverse budgetary incentives (self-explanatory) - especially intertemporally;
(5) rent-seeking (.gov is the single largest source of rents - by which I mean mandated excess profits - in any economy);
(6) X-inefficiency (bureaucratic waste as bureaucracy expands beyond the point where economies of scale exist)...

So let's understand what folks are discussing here: in order to deal with pollution - a problem that can be dealt with privately (pace Coase's "The Problem of Social Costs" [1960]) - we are to use a set of institutions (the State) that
(1) cannot possibly formulate the functional it is supposed to optimise;
(2) has its own objectives that differ from those of the citizenry;
(3) has a tendency to ramify beyond its defensible role/s;
(4) is intertemporally unstable (not least financially);
(5) attracts the worst type of individual (those who seek power); and
(6) is a fortiori likely to fail in its objective due to a combination of corruption, incompetence and failure to properly identify the solution.

And last (for the moment):

The essence of the problem with (a) the State; and (b) democracy is that somehow the State magically arrogates to itself a claim to do things to its citizens, that the citizens themselves do not have the right to do to each other as individuals.

A citizen can not justly steal from another - not even the 1/200millionth part - but put together 100 million citizens and design an institution that claims (falsely) to represent them, and you as the State can take HALF of the output of the society (slightly more when you factor in all-level taxes, fees, charges, costs associated with government waste, and - most importantly - the public sector borrowing requirement and unfunded [off-balance-sheet] .gov liabilities, all of which must be paid back one day).

Likewise, a citizen may not impress a fellow citizen into service for so much as a second... but the State cal enslave a million young men and send them to kill and die for its own aggrandisement.

Anyone who's into naive utilitarianism: let's pretend we can add 'utils' across individuals.

Now, try adding up all the Harberger triangles (the lost utils due to government) represented by dead young males in war - all the billions of man-YEARS of lost productivity, the trillions of dollars of property destruction, the billions upon billions of dollars spent on the machinery of death that can not be spent elsewhere... then tell me again that there is a DYNAMIC, INTERTERMPORAL "utilitarian" argument for the State.

Glock27's picture

I did not understand one word of what you said. I have no doubt that it could be reduced into clear simple statements. But all that aside I would like to understand how the bitcoin would play out. Does it have a chance? If I invested one or two thosand into bitcoin how would I fair? Shold you decide to answer this question do so simply for I am completely ignorant of finances and economics. Preperation and barter is the only thing I really know.


Glock27's picture

It seems as if no one wants to respond to your post. I read the article and it didn't make much sense to me. I would commont on your post be damned it is filled with so many obscure ideas, arcane terms. Not everyone can sit on the top and I am sure there are those whom refuse to respond, kind of leaving you out there in the desart land for a walk about. As I go through your post I sense that you have something to share but it seems difficuld to decipher. Please do not take this as an insult. It is clear you are a brilliant thinker.


mhstahl's picture

Welcome, Kris.

I think it is rather obvious that Zwolinsky's article was not meant as a spoof. Indeed, he raises some fair points, and has elaborated in a new article:


I don't think that I'd agree with his reasoning, but I do most certainly think that the notion of the non-aggression axiom flapping in the breeze over our heads as some sort of moral security blanket that someday could be realized in a working society is just silly.

Non-aggression is a wonderful rhetorical tool for pointing out the depravations of the government. It is virtually universally applicable in that context, and provides a powerful and unique critique in just a few words.

However, without overwhelming force in a society, there is nothing to maintain the delicate Rothbardian puppet strings-such as the homestead "rights" you mention in relation to pollution. Those sorts of absolutes (including "property" as we understand it) require organized, centralized, force to maintain...otherwise known as government. Frankly, I think Rothbard knew that, but also knew he needed to present a system where you could both have your cake, and eat it.

Instead, we should expect local custom, and above all a balance of power among individuals to find an equilibrium on issues such as pollution, property, and assorted violence. No one(or not many folks) is going to risk a fight over small issues-probably. There are no guarantees -so be nice.

Contrary to most "libertarian" models, this sort of society, based upon an equilibrium of self-defense and retaliation, is commonplace in the historical and anthological record. It is how people live without government. It has many, many, drawbacks over modern society, but it does offer freedom.

I'm a heretic, I know.

Welcome again,


Jim Davies's picture

I add my welcome to Mike's, to Kris.
Now Mike, you call it "heresy" but the notion that libertarian ideals can be implemented only by the "overwhelming force" of government looks to me like the common or garden, Minarchist contradiction; that rights can be protected by a primary violator of rights, or that hens are best cared for by foxes.
Can't stop you believing that irrational nonsense if you want to, but is it really sporting to allege that Murray Rothbard, who spent his life trying to implement a free society, "knew" all along that it could not be done?  I'd concede that he tried the wrong method, but not that he tried it insincerely, nor that he passionately wanted to achieve success.
In case you're open to consider the alternative, my STRticle on Justice outlines how aggression and disputes would probably be resolved, absent government.

mhstahl's picture


And where, pray tell, did I call for a government? I've never written that government is necessary for anything. Ever. Though, I suppose if you insist on "rights", you'll want a government-since it created and perpetuates them. I don't care for either, thanks.

What I did write is that human beings, left to their own devices work these things out for themselves. This happens because of self-preservation, not some moral imperative. That does not mean that morality, culture, and custom don't exist-they certainly do-but rather that stable societies can and do exist both without government or any particular moral code. I'm really not sure why that should be so difficult to understand. I think I was really pretty clear the first time. You can not like it if you wish, feel free, but please don't pretend that I called for a government when I did not.

As far as Rothbard goes, I have to wonder how familiar you are with his work? He is rather famous for doing his level best to build broad based coalitions, and crafting his viewpoints in such a way as to appeal across a broad spectrum. I do think that he knew very well that some of his speculations about possible societies were just that, speculation, and that he crafted it in such a way so as to get the broadest appeal possible. At any rate, one of his strongest traits was that he welcomed challenges to his views.

I like Rothbard, I even cited his History of Economic Thought Before Adam Smith(a  wonderful work) in a master's thesis presented to an open Marxist. That said, I think he underestimated the effects of government on markets, and failed to realize the hand of government in the very structure of the market (transferable, durable property as we know it, for instance.) He also tended to make arguments rather than provide through analysis. Even so, I have come to many of the views that I have by-among other things- contemplating these very inconsistencies in his theories and speculation...I suspect that was by design.

I have read your "Justice" piece, and I must say that, setting aside some serious practical concerns, I found it extraordinarily disturbing on a level akin to my first read of Huxley's A Brave New World, or perhaps A Clockwork Orange. I believe that you mean well, which is what makes your work so chilling, but everything you write is shot through with the notion that people must be "fixed" in some fashion in order to be "free". You even advocate "re-education camps"(all very voluntary of course...) Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps we don't?

Thanks for the comment, I hope that I've clarified things a bit.



Jim Davies's picture

Mike, you appeared to me to "call for government" when you posted "...require organized, centralized, force to maintain...otherwise known as government." But if it was all just a misunderstanding, good. Not easy, is it, to write here unambiguously.
Horrified, though, that you feel the Justice page is disturbing and chilling and that people need to be fixed so as to be free, in re-education camps. I just re-read that, and find no reference to any camp. You might want to read it again.
Re-education, on the other hand, is absoutely required before a free society can function. That is rather self-evident. Today almost everyone trusts the myth of government, and looks to it for their wellbeing. That has absolutely got to be eradicated. Not just in the justice system specifically, but in the Freedom Academy that will make it possible to come about. There's nothing sinister about it, the process is wholly voluntary and the term is used literally; one could liken it to "deprogramming" a recovering cultist perhaps. 
You might want to become familiar with the process. It will take an hour or so. Start here. Notice the first bullet: "universal re-education is both necessary and sufficient to liberate society." That ought to be very obvious, and if it's not we must be quite failing to connect.

mhstahl's picture

By the way, I never wote that Rothbard "knew all along that it couldn't be done", rather I think he likely did know that his proposed framework was unworkable, and that he presented it to provoke thought without turning off the initial reader-there is a rather big difference there.


KenK's picture

Imagine a group of slaves with balls & chains around their feet sitting around their dim campfire slurping their meager gruel rations and all the while having heated arguments about what color schemes they'll use to decorate their homes after they've overthrown The Man and established their Free Society. Meanwhile they're being steadily disarmed, taxed, preyed upon, bankrupted, dispossessed, harassed, and so even further enslaved. But hey, after they do manage to overthrow The Man, they'll have that libertarian position on air pollution policy thing decided, so there's that silver lining. The obvious absurdity of this situation is hilarious even if unintentionally so.

Jim Davies's picture

Oddly enough, KenK, the illustration of the dreaming slaves isn't all that silly. Their hopes were mainly religious as shown in this collection of spirituals, but they did indeed sit around their dim campfire visualizing better days to come.
What they failed to do, as alas many enslaved libertarians today fail to do, was to systematically discuss and plan how they were going to end the peculiar institution. As a result it took a terrible war. Had they figured it out rationally, eariler, history would have been very different.
But yes, we can agree that there comes a point in the planning where we just cannot anticipate how a free society will deal with this or that situation - and that's unsurprising. Freedom is what allows inititiative and invention to flourish, in ways never foreseen.

KenK's picture

@Jim Davies
I don't want to get side tracked or diverted by entering into a discussion about the causes of the American Civil War. I meant "slave" in the generic definitions of the term, not simply the chattel slavery of captured Africans forcibly deported to America. Nice try though, if this was intentional on your part, but no cigar. My apologies if it wasn't.
This May I will turn 43. Looking back so far I have to say that except for solo camping trips into the wilderness I have never been completely autonomous and free in my life. And so by my reckoning, that amounts to a little over a one calendar year total out of 43. Not a lot really, esp. if I minus out the time spent as an infant/young child and my four years in the Army, then it's even less.
With the above mentioned as a preamble my point here is this Jim: The thing I find lacking in your program, (and of endless noodling on philosophical minutiae by political types in general), is that we just don't live long enough to accomplish the goal in our own lifetime. I recognize that some projects are like that; they cannot be finished in one human lifetime, and my first and foremost goal/life project is to live in liberty in MY LIFETIME. Old Thomas Jefferson had it right about the time frame issue, no?
I admire your efforts here Jim, but honestly at age 43 I don't see it working in the next 30 years* or so. I could be wrong, but I don't think I am. Call me unduly negative, nihilistic, selfish, or an asshole troll, or whatever you want, but it changes nothing. Human beings don't have infinite time for your incrementalist program to work.
That's how I see it. I am gonna go for the prize in the here and now, as best I can, and by whatever means I can discover or devise. 
* About how much longer I can reasonably expect to live, knock on wood.

Jim Davies's picture

No intention, Ken, to divert you to the specific set of slaves in pre-1865 America; I referred to it just to illustrate the point that slaves may dream of a better time to come. And because that set is a familiar example to most readers.
Their situation was bleak indeed, but as I hinted I do think they might have boostrapped themselves out of slavery, if Lincoln had not intervened. They had several factors in favor: slavery was being abolished peacefully elsewhere by the 1830s; machinery was being invented that would do several of their jobs more cheaply for the "owner"; and they might (though they didn't) have sat around that camp fire and figured what exactly the owner would do if they all walked off the plantations together. There may have been other ideas.
As for the program whose development I led, I don't at all accuse you of being "negative, nihilistic, selfish," etc.  Just not very good at arithmetic :-)
Its key dependency is that each graduate will find ONE FRIEND per year to follow him through the course. That's an extremely light workload, IMO very well within the ability of everyone here (or if not, we hardly deserve to be free.) Assuming that rate, the rest is math and the task will take 28 years. Because of the excellent start we had in 2006, the effective starting year has become 1999.
I may or may not live to see and enjoy E-Day; I'd be 90. But at a mere 43 now, you will.