Through Thick and Thin: Ahoy!

Column by Mark Davis.

Exclusive to STR

Mini-statists love to use lifeboat analogies in an effort to reveal a weakness in the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) and/or in respect for property rights (self-ownership).   But what is revealed?  These lifeboat situations are, of course, not even close to being universal experiences.  These analogies are used by statists to make the case that state monopoly-imposed law enforcement is required to keep people from killing and robbing each other, yet they show how obviously impotent state law is in these situations.  Finally, assuming that acts of violence against others are justified by survival instincts reveals more about the person assuming this premise than it does about organizing society.

The gist of a lifeboat situation is to show that men sometimes must compete, indeed battle, with others for scarce resources in order to survive and thus necessity is used to justify acts of violence which violate the NAP and property rights.  The libertarian philosophy based on property rights first looks to who owns the boat for decisions pertaining to its use; if the boat is not owned (abandoned), then homesteading or the idea of first-come-first-served is used to establish ownership.   The purpose of these rhetorical scenarios (I can’t call them arguments) is to supposedly render considerations of property rights and the NAP moot, but don’t they also then undermine all other potential codes of social justice in the process, voluntary or not?  If you promote the principle that men may use violence to take what they themselves determine is “needed,” then doesn’t that destroy the entire ideal of civilized behavior, including obedience to authority?

I find it amusing that people suggest examples of extreme desperation as a context for “real life,” yet obviously don’t examine the probability of such scenarios; just consider how many times how many people are stuck in a sinking life boat or similar situation?  People are mostly good, by a long shot, yet the elite are allowed by a majority of society to institutionalize violence in order to contain a small percentage of the population.  Seeking enslavement to avoid disaster is sure setting the bar pretty low for potential social organizations.  The potential for coming to harm in life is certainly significant, be it from sinking lifeboats, starvation, hurricanes, car accidents, fires, sharks or a million other things.  Risks are part of life, the rest is how we deal with and react to what comes at us. 

What sets humans above other animals is our intellectual ability to overcome basic physical urges, fears and desires in the heat of the moment as well as day to day.  Surrendering to these natural exhortations reveals one of the primary character weaknesses in supporters of the state: cowardice.  This is how it becomes “okay” to torture, invade, occupy, maim, steal, rob and kill; especially when clothed in official garments bearing the seal of majority approval.  The degree of elite control over the institutions brokering these deals using peasants/workers/soldiers as chips in order to influence the use of that seal, typically by gaining majority approval, is significant, but not decisive.  This is because aggressive violence is universally recognized as just plain wrong, therefore popular support for violent institutions is unsustainable in the long run.

Just because most people seek peace and cooperation, this does not mean civilized people are docile victims waiting to be exploited by some mean and nasty boogeyman de jure.  The desire to protect family, self and property is universal; this includes both those people who prefer to peacefully cooperate and those who prefer to institutionalize violence as the organizing principle for society.  Chaining society to a central authority because the elite are able to successfully cultivate an overdramatic fear of the psychotic few among the many is not rational.

After disasters, most people in most neighborhoods don’t go around looting their neighbors.  I’ve been through some hard blowing, window breaking, tree clearing, power outing hurricanes, and after every single one had passed (some before) my neighbors all came out and we checked on each other.  Then we worked together to get tree limbs cleared, emergency repairs made and extension cords run from neighboring generators to defrosting refrigerators full of food.  The human capacity for goodwill when faced with emergency situations is enormous and spontaneous.  So when someone in a desert needs a drink of water or someone fleeing a sinking ship needs a seat on a lifeboat or perhaps someone needs food to keep from starving, in real life most people will typically immediately respond with kindness, if not enthusiastic help.  Promoting borderline fears using dubious hypothetical prognostications of the future in order to impose a monopoly authority on the use of force is the essence of the statist argument.  Call them on it.

People can take turns hanging onto the side of a boat or hold on to a rope if it is sinking under too much weight, they don’t have to resort to violence.  Is that really so hard to figure out?  There is no compelling rationale that precludes human cooperation under seemingly overwhelming odds facing mortal danger.   Survival and fellowship are both instinctual desires that influence people to want to work together, not kill each other.  And assuming someone did resort to violence, what good are words written in faraway law books?  Does the threat of punishment by law enforcement even get considered by people lost on the ocean or in the middle of a desert facing life and death decisions?  Indeed, aren’t the violent acts men are purportedly compelled by nature to commit in these desperate situations against the law in most states?  So, why do statists use such a dubious, self-defeating method to promote the state?

It becomes increasingly frustrating when discussing the state with those who oppose the state, yet support the state in the name of pragmatism.  Hard core statists who honestly believe that the state is actually good at providing products and services, that obedience to central authority will keep them safe and majority rule conquers all individual problems, are easy to dismiss with a few simple facts demonstrating the opposite is true.  Of course, many hard-core statists will cling to their delusions of state grandeur as they openly discard facts, logic and reason for emotional platitudes, making it is easy to disregard them as immature or foolish and not worth any more time.  On the other hand, mini-statists who, using facts, logic and reason, recognize the state for the evil institution that it is then turn around and argue that this evil institution is necessary for society to survive, require a more patient and deliberate process to reveal the fallacies of their position.

Mini-statists are eat-up with cognitive dissonance because when they are faced with a logical argument against the state, they must eventually choose between questioning core beliefs held since childhood (worshiping state authority and violence) and ignoring the obvious (a free market, property rights-based society provides superior incentives to cooperate and prosper for all).   Enlightenment is thus forsaken in the quest to avoid an admission that quaint emotional attachments overrule their reasoning capabilities.  In order to challenge the noble simplicity evident in the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) and the importance of respect for property rights, statists reveal their contempt for virtue and their disdain for strong character.  That they “throw the baby out with the bathwater” trying to find exceptions to the NAP is apparently lost on the hypothetical question-begging mini-statist.

Now on the small chance that someone may be stuck in a sinking boat with a coward who resorts to violence under duress, I would suggest such a situation says more about one’s personal choice of boat mates than about how society should be organized.  Good men need not fear bad men, just deal with them, like we deal with tornadoes, snakes, hunger and sickness: with purpose and dignity, not instinct and cowardice.  This is both natural and logical, the state is not.

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Mark Davis's picture
Columns on STR: 65

Mark Davis is a husband, father and real estate analyst/investor enjoying the freedoms we still have in Longwood, Florida.


Log from Blammo's picture

I hate arguments by lifeboat hypothetical. The people that use them are imagining the furthest possible scenario from everyday civilized behavior. Essentially, they are saying that their opponent's principles break down under the most extreme imaginable scenario.

Big deal.

What if the lifeboat is not, in fact, sinking, the two people on it expect to survive for a long, long time in each other's company, and there is actually enough room aboard for a lot more people? In fact, let's forget about the lifeboat entirely, and put the two people on an island with exploitable, though meager, resources. Well, those two people will probably want to get along amicably, and therefore establish some simple ground rules.

Don't take the other guy's stuff without his permission. If there is some sort of emergency, and he can't give you permission fast enough to help, go right ahead, but you had better thank him properly for saving your bacon after the situation cools.

Don't kill, attack, assault, batter, maim, injure, restrain, insult, or bully the other guy. Remember, if you have an accident, he's the only guy around who can nurse you back to health.

If the island is invaded by raygun-wielding aliens, sea serpents, zombie pirates, robot ninjas, or any other obviously hostile force, it's us against them. If the island is invaded by cooperative immigrants, the wingman pact clearly states that no one shall attempt to court or ally with the most obviously desirable partner, except by prior, mutally-agreed establishment of "dibs", and that neither shall do or say anything to impugn the reputation of the other, either directly or by inference.

It isn't difficult to analogize a situation that maps and scales directly back to normal civilized existence. Likewise, it is not difficult to recognize situtations where one person or the other clearly establishes an intent to reneg upon the cooperative pact. In that instance, it is completely acceptable for the other to retaliate, or to take additional measures to defend his own interests.

Douglas Herman's picture

Hi Mark,
   Excellent use of lifeboat metaphor - or is it anology? 
You wrote: "After disasters, most people in most neighborhoods don’t go around looting their neighbors.  I’ve been through some hard blowing, window breaking, tree clearing, power outing hurricanes, and after every single one had passed (some before) my neighbors all came out and we checked on each other."
   NOt sure where you were, but after Andrew and Katrina, it was the .Gov appointed jackboots who stomped around and made things worse.
   Anyway, keep up the good work.  And as for Lifeboat mentality, speaking solely as a commercial fisherman, we resort to inflatable life rafts, survival suits, flares and radios.
  At this point in 'Murica it is: "Mayday, Mayday - This is vessel America and we are on fire, adrift and sinking. Send help fast!"

Mark Davis's picture

Hi Doug,
Luckily I haven't had to deal with the .gov jackboots after any storms as they do typically make things worse; especially when they are disarming victims or keeping people from getting to or even staying in their homes.  I've gone without power for three days, twice, and for the first couple of days it was difficult to get a car into or out of my neighborhood, so we were on our own which actually helped created a stronger sense of community.
Commerical fisherman is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world and manned by some of the most independent minded men in the world.  I'd bet that has helped you to gain some tremendous insights into this subject.
It looks to me like the USS America has lunatics at the helm screaming "Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!"  So we may all be in lifeboats fairly soon.

Douglas Herman's picture

    I skipped this summer, Mark. But next summer I intend to buy a rad detector and test fish we catch there in Alaska. I'm also the cook on the boat.
  I wrote this for a fishing mag last year.

Good skipper, bad skipper

Samarami's picture

Good observations, Mark.

Our entire lives have seemingly been consumed in pointing to the necessity for monopoly "care" (read: violence) inculcated into our brains since we were babies. I can understand many not liking David Icke, but in this instance he is dead on with his animation of The Hegelian Dialectic.

The political holiday coming up this week serves as a classic example: keep the dumb serfs barbecuing and drinking beer and hooting and hollering and setting off firecrackers! Few of them will spend much time analyzing what the psychopaths making the speeches claim it's supposed to all mean, but that's not important. Just keep 'em in tune with the idea that monopoly state serves a socially useful purpose, and that wars are necessary to keep everybody "safe".

Support them troops, fer sure fer sure -- but be thankful you live in a free country. ("Free country", incidentally, is about as oxymoronish as it gets). Sam