Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Some thoughts on war


Ok, this site has been dead for a year, but there has been an interesting burst of articles in the libertarian world about the legitimacy of war, and I want to express my views. Let's begin by saying that I don't like articles such as "Barnett is no longer a libertarian because he doesn't agree with my dogmas": they strictly resemble the attitude of the Marxists. I also add that I mostly agree with Barnett: there is something wrong with the libertarian approach to I.R. (International Relations).

Here there is a good summary by Kinsella of the opinions expressed so far, which contains links to whatever I've read about the discussion:

In a debate mainly based on juridical arguments it is not clear whether or not geo-political and historical considerations are on-topic. What is evident is that, while "moderate" libertarian think tanks like the Cato Institute invest huge resources in careful and detailed analyses of strategic problems, the Mises Institute does not seem interested in real strategic issues, but mainly on a deontological stance against war itself. It is strange: radical libertarianism has lots of important economists (e.g. Rothbard), lots of important jurists (e.g. Leoni), and no International Relation expert at all. That's not fun, especially if in the future, as every political movement hopes, they time will come to think about concrete political problems instead of political theory.

Most libertarians think that those who have enemies have done something to deserve it: this opinion is clearly evident even in Prof. Murphy's article, linked above. But it is indefensible: I call it the "a raped woman is a whore" theory, thanks to the inspiration of a Swedish thrash metal band (were they Terror2000? I don't remember.). The inhabitants of Melos weren't doing anything evil before behind slaughtered by the Athenians; neither the Jews in 1943; nor the American Indians, nor the human race in Independence Day.

In order to avoid quibbling about modern and contemporary history, which would be off-topic, I will avoid in what follows direct references to Iraq, Afghanistan, WWI, WWII, the Cold War, etc.

I will mostly talk about the problem of "What's lawful?" and not about the related problem of "Who decides what's lawful?". This is not to understate the importance of the latter question. But the former is logically prior, as far as we don't accept a Schmittian view of political relations, in which the former question does not play any role.

Here there is somewhat a methodological problem. In real societies, if we apply the Leonian "Id quod plerumque accidit" (what usually occurs) criterion of validity for legal rules, it's the common acceptance of rights, duties and procedures which gives life to the legal order. In war, this common legal order does not exist, almost by definition, and, so, the problem of law enforcing and legal judgement are particularly critical. Anyway, here we are interested in a purely deontological approach: that is, "what is right?".

A further methodological problem arises because of the "thymological" nature of human history. Ideas and concepts are as clear in theory as opaque in history. We all know what risk is: but there is no criterion for a "proper burden of risk". But legal judgements are about the latter, not the former, problem. There is no "natural" "proper burden of risk", as a criterion; there is only a "qualitative" principle. That's the Popperian principle/criterion dichotomy reapplied. Most of the things I will say in the following are principles and not criteria: they are a rough guide, but cannot substitute judgement.

Lawful Collateral Damage - Or "Rothbard Pro-War"

Rothbard said: "But suppose, on the other hand, that the Martians also had the characteristics, the nature, of the legendary vampire, and could only exist by feeding on human blood. In that case, regardless of their intelligence, the Martians would be our deadly enemy and we could not consider that they were entitled to the rights of humanity. Deadly enemy, again, not because they were wicked aggressors, but because of the needs and requirements of their nature, which would clash ineluctably with ours." (

Is there a duty to cause one's own self-destruction to avoid damage to third parties? A duty to commit suicide by omission? Ayn Rand would say "No", and her response comes at no surprise, given the premises of her system of thought. I would tell also Rothbard would say "No", considering his quotation, and applying it to a more realistic situation: which are the responsibilities of a person who causes collateral damage to third parties while defending his own legitimate rights against aggression? Proportionality, a corner stone of the Rothbard’s system, obviously has to play a role, but there is a case to legally justify collateral damages in life/death situation, when it is unavoidable.

Rothbard says it is legitimate to kill a rational alien being if its nature is incompatible with ours. Evidently, the fact of being rational does not imply the possession of natural rights, even in the Rothbardian framework (personally, I don't believe in natural rights anyway...). But what if the situation in which an individual acts is such that the defence of his rights requires to damage the rights of others?

The solution is to introduce several degrees of "aggression". Everybody does a distinction between these three cases:

1. A uses coercion against B

2. B, to defend himself, overreacts and damages C

3. B, to defend himself, has to damage C

If we don't consider (3) a crime, but only a tort (C has a right to defend himself, and to obtain reparations), it's because we don't believe in the natural duty to cause one's own self-destruction. Not even a totalitarian like Hobbes has denied individuals this right, even against his beloved Leviathan.

Can I shoot a soldier hidden behind a human shield? What if I kill the human shield? On the other hand, can I bomb an airport from which bombers take off to bomb my property? What if I kill a civilian?

It doesn't make much sense to have a natural duty to leave the world in the hands of those who use innocents as human shields, and commit suicide for worship of non-aggression.

Anyway, if this principle is accepted, war is not inherently unjust, and no legal difference between privates and states is necessary in order to show this legitimacy. Collateral damages can be lawful, at least from a criminal point of view. The alternative is, by our hypotheses, mandatory suicide (uh… another thrash metal band… Slayer!).

Types of military attack

Most libertarians only think in terms of armies invading territories, backed by tanks, artillery, helicopters, ships, airplanes, cruise missiles. This is not always the case. Blockades, support to terrorism, cyber-attacks to communication infrastructures are forms of military attacks, too.

Only direct invasions and blockades, at least sometimes, can be counteracted by simply counterattacks against enemy forces. But even in this very simple case, counterattack can be harmful to privates (e.g. other invaded civilians); besides, it is highly unlikely that this simple form of counterattack will force the attacker to yield. Invading his territory, bombing his ports and airports, bombing his railways and highways, paying his domestic enemies can be necessary military actions.

Alliances and allied

There is no theoretical case for isolationism based on libertarian grounds. The old Washington Doctrine made sense: in a world without Ballistic and Cruise Missiles, without Airplanes, without Warships made of steel, the US were in the enviable position of being able to live safely without direct involvement in wars abroad. At least up until a global superpower would have established its supremacy in the rest of the world, and its bases in the American continent.

If there is, anyway, a weak case for isolationism from a historical perspective, there is none from the theoretical point of view. Any social action is based on cooperation: common defence has to be considered a form of cooperation, too. To fight united against a direct invasion is no different from looking for allies in the rest of the world.

D. Friedman, in his "The machinery of freedom", shows that a world made of hundreds of small communities can fall prey to one only super-power by the simple use of nuclear threat. If there are more nukes than suicidal communities, the terror equilibrium can be stable, and everybody would be forced to yield. Nobody has answered the question, as far as I know. Anyway, two thousand years before the Manhattan Project, the Romans already recognized the maxim "Divide et Impera" (divide and rule).

Historically, three solutions have been given to the problem of security. The most common one is the Empire: a hegemonic power performs the defence tasks in place of its clientes (which may or may not play a minor role). The original solution is cooperation: citizens federated in the Polis, or in the Boroughs, for common defence. The most sophisticated solution is the Balance of Power, when it is possible to face inner and outer menaces together (both with collective security and, more likely, with flexible alliances), but no one is capable of creating an Empire.

Whatever the solution, the problem exists. I've no much sympathy for the first one. But in order to apply the other two, alliances and allied are necessary, unless you are the Empire.

At the edge of crime

Unfortunately, the idea of "necessity" is opaque, and it is not clear whether a certain collateral damage is to be considered lawful or a war crime. It is fairly easy to be so loose to justify any crime, or to be so strict to make defence impracticable. It’s a good compromise that it’s difficult to find.

So, there are many cases which are not easily solved, and whose answer somehow depends on the geopolitical conditions and the state of the technology. For example, the Greeks, as reported by Thucidides, destroyed the fields around fortified cities in order to conquer them. Was it terrorism? Like the one of the Athenians against Melos? No, it was a strategic choice. Ok: but when shall we trace the border line between legitimate military actions and terrorism? As usual, there are no criteria at hand. At the end, I cannot imagine justice without good sense.

There are more terrible examples. What about the position of neutrals? Suppose that our region, A, borders with the sea and region C; region B borders with the sea and region C. B attacks A by sea, having the strongest navy, but A has the strongest army. Can A invade B in order to attack C?

In truth, there is a scale of different cases: a region can be already exploited by the attacker, even if formally neutral; in this case, I have no doubts. If the neutral region is politically weak, and in perspective can become a base for the attack, is a Protectorate legitimate? And, finally, what if a region is completely neutral, and has no role in the war, except for being a nice path for the troops? The right answer lies somewhere among the two extremes.

Combatants, belligerents, non-belligerents

A distinction, proposed by a friend of mine, can help restrict the generality of the principle of "necessity" and smooth its excessive elasticity (which should be the role of "in bello" jurisprudence: the law during war).

A combatant is the one who actively fight the war (for example, the Greek Hoplites). The belligerent is the non-combatant who plays a role in the logistics of war (for example, the Greek farmer invaded by the enemy army). The non-belligerent is the perfect neutral.

I believe that the rights of non-combatants should be taken into high consideration, and that their reaction to an attack is just.

Is there a case for a theory of just war?

If we accept our conclusions, there is a fairly strong case for just wars, and for lawful collateral damage, and whatever military action is necessary in the geo-political environment in which we have to act, at least against belligerents (casualties among combatants cannot be considered collateral damages).

A war can be just if:

1. It is for defence, both self-defence and defence of the allies against an attacker

2. It makes technically (strategically) sense to fight it

3. Third party damage is minimized (foreign citizens are obviously included).

If there is no juridical duty to cause one's own death by omission, there is a case for just collateral damages. If there is not, a free world would fall in the hands of the first sociopath walking the earth. And I'd bet there are many.

Look: I haven't said anything about Iraq and Afghanistan. Everything I’ve said is valid both for states and for private defence agencies.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Secession and Protectionism

Recently, I've been stuck in a burst of hard work, so I haven't had the time to update this blog, to write new articles, to visit other blogs and forums, etcetera. Besides, this afternoon I have to prepare the dinner for my friends, see the Final match of the World Cup, and do some training, in the last chapter of my futile attempt to lose weight and fall below the psychological threshold of 80kg. I mean: I will not be a frequent blogger at least up to September.

I like the idea of secession: if I create a "society" with my wife, it's because I want to live with her (and viceversa, I hope); if I create a "society" with ten soccer players, it's because I want to play with them; etcetera. There are several reasons why people cooperate: both in the "small society" and in the "Great Society" ("catallaxy", i.e., "the social system of division of labour", i.e., "the market", latu sensu), society is kept together by the recognition of mutual benefits derived from cooperation.

This fact has an evolutionary meaning: no social instincts would have developed if social cooperation hadn't been beneficial to the welfare of individuals. In the Great Society, the main source of social cooperation is the greater productivity of the division of labour, the so-called "Law of Ricardo".

Every "social" relation which is not based on the recognition of reciprocal advantages, but on violence and submission, deserves to be called "slavery". Politics is a form of slavery. This sentence may appear ironical if applied to the American War of Secession. But I don't plan to talk about it.

What I want to state is that the inhabitants of a region, possibly even a single individual, have the right to secede from their political body as they see fit. Their previous co-servants have no right to keep them tied to their state.

This principle, if applied properly, would result in a society composed only of social ties whose existence exclusively rely on the value attached to them by the individuals involved. It would be a free society, not a political one.

Where's the problem? Suppose that the North of Italy secedes from the rest of Italy. Some northerners will be severed by this secession (for example, the "capitalists" who make "profits" out of development "aid" to the South). On the other hand, most northerners would gain: they wouldn't need to pay to fund the policies which create unemployment and underdevelopment in the South, and they wouldn't need to pay to fill the bellies of national politicians and their acolytes.

Anyway, suppose that only a small part of the North wanted to secede: only the county of Bolzano. That region is small enough to make our following reason meaningful.

Tomorrow, let say, Bolzano secedes from the rest of Italy and creates its own political society: "Repubblica dei Medaglioni di Cervo ai Mirtilli Rossi" (The Republic of "Medallions of Red Deer with Blackberries"). Notwithstanding the problem of being invaded and ravished by the Italian Army, under the threatening charge of "violating the Constitution" (which expressly states that the Italian State is not kept together by any "sense of belonging", but only by force, see Article V: "The Republic, One and Indivisible...").

Notwithstanding this problem, there is a more pacific way to "debellare superbos" ("crush the defiant", which is part of an Imperial Roman motto... the other part is "parcere subiectis", which means "spare the submissive"). Neglecting Anchises’ geo-political Realism, the tactic is not difficult: Protectionism.

The striving for wealth impels humans, as far as they crave for a better standard of living, to create an entangled and complex web of commercial relations, which is structurally "global", in its very nature, because of the operation of the Law of Ricardo.

Unfortunately, it is evident that a huge country can live without trading with a small country, and the standard of living of its inhabitants will be negligibly affected. The contrary is true from the other side: the small country needs to trade with the other one, as far as its inhabitants are not prepared to face a great reduction in their standard of living.

This creates the basis for a "commercial Imperialism", through Protectionism: large nations can use the wealth of their national commerce to lure the political class of smaller nations in the system of power.

From the secessionist point of view, this means that what the seceded Republic gains by severing the fiscal ties with its original political body, will be lost when the motherland will use regulations, quotas and tariffs in order to starve the "superbos" and force them to comply to the will of their old rulers.

There cannot be any secession strategy without global free trade. Their cannot be any peaceful international trade without eliminating the interference of politics on global movements of goods and services. There is no good thing in the universe that the state is incapable to turn into evil.

P.S. The imperialistic nature of protectionism is also relevant in understanding the expansion of that bureaucratic monster which is called "European Union". There is only one reasonable reason why peoples who have been subject for decades to the terrible power of Moscow have accepted immediately to become sujects of the (less terrible, more ridiculous) power of Brussels. This reason is that the countries which compose the EU are rich, and, as far as a country is member of the EU, there is some resemblance of free trade with the other members; while if a country is not member, quotas, tariffs, agricultural subsidies and regulations will hamper the division of labour. If I am right, the elimination of protectionist measures in the EU will rapidly cause the failure of the entire project: no country would have benefits in becoming a member of the monster, no member would gain in complying with the will of the eurocrats. For me, this is a very good additional reason to be a radical free trader.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Blog closed

It's becoming a habit... anyway, tomorrow is the 29th of June and in Rome it's holyday (St Peter and Paul). I'm going to exploit this opportunity to go to the beach: bathing, tanning, biking, relaxing... I'll be back on Sunday.

Sunday, June 25, 2006


Today I have the "duty" to vote to change the Italian Constitution or leave it as it is.

Democracy has bored me so much that I've simply forgotten to read something about this Reform.

Alepuzio has written a summary.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Blog closed

I will be offline for a week. See you on June 24th.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Against social justice - I

"Social justice" is the tool by which governments have destroyed the idea of liberty. Some libertarians, like Hayek, have criticized its theory and accepted its practise (may be to make the idea of liberty more appealing?); only consistent libertarians have criticized the idea itself. Anyway, consistency is rare among classical liberals, and the health of this statist idea should not surprise anyone. The idea of "social justice" itself, anyway, shall be criticized, because it is incompatible with classical liberalism and libertarianism.

"Social justice" is an ensemble of normative instances (judgements of value) which assert, briefly, that each individual is entitled to obtain several goods and services as an individual, without considering its contribution to their production.

Let us consider the "right" to nourishment: each individual has a "right" to obtain food, nothwithstanding his efforts (or lack of efforts) in obtaining food. So, each individual has the "right" to be fed by others, even if he spends all his days tanning in his garden under the sun.

This means that someone else has the duty to nourish him: someone shall be compelled to farm wheat, back bread and offer the previous individual a sandwich while he is tanning... "Social justice" implies the imposition of juridical duties over other people. Besides, we have a clear example of externalities: the costs of obtaining food are externalized on others, who will be forced to foot the bill. Everybody will have the same idea, and no one will be willing to work (this is not a description of reality, but a reductio ad absurdum). It is clear that these externalities do create parasitism, disincentives to work, etcetera.

This legal duty is, to say the least, curious: Texas people should be forced to "help" Wyoming people. And why shouldn't Canadian people be compelled to help Polish people? Don't they require more "social justice" than the inhabitants of Wyoming?

Not enough absurdities, so far, so we can go on: these "rights" are so strange that poor people enjoying them may be worse off than without them. Consider children labour: ok, it is better to play with Barbie than working in a mine. I see no reason to derive from this obvious sentence that they shall be forced to stop working in the mine: the outcome will not be more playing with dolls, but more poverty, starvation, child abuse, chile prostitution, children labour, black markets...

But the poverty of "social justice" does not end here: it is easy to show that, if democracy were a serious thing, "social justice" would be useles... in fact, if the majority of the people wants poor relief... why don't they relieve the poor with their own means? They are the majority: they have (roughly) one half of the total amount of social material resources. If we add that in a free market there would be less poor in need of help, we reach the conclusion that "social justice" is hypocrite: everybody wants to be a do-gooder, by with other peoples' means.

No, the list is not finished, yet: what about the concentration of a limitless power in the hands of politicians, who have the power to scatter costs and benefit throughout society without being constrained by any other limit than their own quest for power? "Social justice" requires a large, and expensive bureaucracy; a powerful ruling classe, a gigantic fiscal system. Do you really believe that all this power will be employed to help the poor? Uh? A normative idea which may be extended to every single aspect of human life, because its content is vague, to say the least, and may be used, thus, to justify any power, any coercion, any prevarication... we must be fool in believing in "social justice".

People who are naive enough to keep on believing in democracy, probably consider government a sort of blackboard on which they can write their will, sum it to other people's will, and obtain an optimal social policy (whatever this means, if it means something). The mother of fools is always pregnant: in reality, political decision mechanisms influence political choices. Organized political pressure groups are almost always the winners in this lottery, notwithstanding the fact they are, in general, small minorities. There is no reason to believe that the poor will see any advantage from this process.

Libertarian ("natural") rights are not simply different from social (socialist?) "rights": they are incompatible. Liberty only imposes on others not to kill, beat and defraud us; "social rights" give us the ideological justification to use the rest of manking as a means fo our aims, using coercion against them. "Social justice" is serfdom. Besides, libertarian rights can be "universal", because it is always possible, or at least conceivable, to respect them: "social rights" depend on the level of economic development, on the other hand, and they are likely to hamper this development on which they depend.

This was an introduction: a "manifesto against social justice". In the near future, I will post some argument in defense of these theses.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Voluntary serfdom, double standards, conformism...

... A.K.A. Principles of Politics

Imagine you have a gun and go to your neighbour's home: imagine to point your gun at your neighbour's face and force them to fund a charitable organization which helps African children. Would you be proud of yourselves? Would you be surprised to be considered a criminal? Would you call it charity? No.

Suppose now to do exactly the same thing, but not directly: suppose that the state does it for you. This is foreign aid, funded through coercitive taxation. Would you be proud of yourselves? Would you be surprised to be considered a criminal? Would you call it charity?

If now you answer "yes", then you got a tipically political disease: double standards, moral hypocricy. What is a crime done by a private person becomes somethin to be proud of if done through "the state", whatever this means. What you would have called a crime, now you name "politics"; what you would have called hypocricy, now you call "social justice".

Imagine to go to your neighbour's home: imagine to ask him to give you his son for temporary enslavement, one year of forced labor to help on you kitchen. Suppose now that you neighbour agrees: would you call him a coward, a debauched, a degenerate? Yes.

Suppose now that the "state" calls you son for compulsory military service, the draft (or civil service, such as Hitler's Reichsarbeitsdienst... it seems that something akin will soon be introduced in Italy). Do you feel a coward in obeying? Do you feel a debauched in not protesting? Do you feel a degenerate in not rebelling? No? Why?

If you yield to power without a word of disappointment, obeying orders that you wouldn't take seriously if imposed upon you by any other man, you are probably victim of another tipically political disease: voluntary servitude. You believe something to be right only because power says it is right.

Suppose now that the "state" calls the son of your neighbour to kidnap him with the draft. How do you believe he should react? Should he obey? Should he yield? Should he surrender?
Only because you surrender, does everybody shall surrender? Only because you kneel, does everybody shal kneel?

If your reasoning is similar, you got a third, and equally lethal, political disease: conformism: you believe your compromises should be made compulsory, your weaknesses, made law, your submission, imposed to everybody.

Without double standard, without voluntary servitude, without conformism, no government could last. People despise arrogance: except when it is called "Politics". People despise coercion: except when it is named "Politics". People despise oppression: except when it is dubbed "Politics". People are clever, except whem it comes to politics.

But remember: if the public opinion were libertarian, the political classes would be harmless; if the public opinion believed in individual rights, their violation would be unconceivable, if the public opinion were principled, individual rights would be safe.

But when the public opinion sleeps, liberty dies. That's exactly our situation...

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Obstacles to libertarian policies

Sometimes it happens that politicians defend libertarian principles in order to win the elections. What never happens is that a libertarian policy is really applied. Politicians like Reagan or Berlusconi may have to thank their "libertarian" slogans for their political success, but it is impossible to claim their policies to be consistent with their slogans. Why?

There are three possible problems in implementing libertarian policies:

1. Social problems: libertarian policies may impose a cost on a great part of society. Possible examples: national defense, insurance against invalidity. I believe these problems to be rare and negligible. In other words, only a tiny part of statalist policies can be defendended on consequentialist (utilitarian, latu sensu) grounds.

2. Political problems: libertarian policies impose a cost on politicians, bureaucrats, rent-seekers and other parasites. In this case, a libertarian politician, even a sincere libertarian (the theoretical possibility that a honest politician exists cannot be denied, at least a priori), will probably face professional failure: he will not be elected, and its "allies" will not cooperate with him. The result is that he will remain isolated and will not be able to accomplish anything. A possible example is unionism: unions are useless, they can only create mass unemployment through the use of private coercion, they can improve the conditions of their members or their countrymen only to the extent that they damage non-members and alien workers. Despite these problems, in Continental Europe it is impossible to get rid of their harmful privileges, and their political power enable them to remain powerful, their uselessness nothwithstanding.

3. Mixed problems: libertarian policies can cause transitory harm to several people, but only because previous policies have created a nasty situation. For example, a clear cut libertarian retirement plan may consist in giving back every cent to the original tax-payer. Unfortunately, old workers may find themselves without pension. This is because in the actual situation they are exploiting young workers: by justice they have no claim over the enslavement of the young tax-payers. But it is undisputable that the situation may cause "social" unrest: politicians claiming that the old shall gain their retirement are bound to political failure.

I believe the first group to be almost void. I believe that most policies can be eliminated in 24 hours, but only against the will of the actual decision makers, i.e., within the institutional framework of democracy, the problems of the second group are unavoidable and unsolvable. Anyway, libertarians should pay attention to the third category because it may create a source of dissent with libertarian ideas.

In this third category I can imagine: a deep depression due to the return to the gold standard, old people starving because they have not saved enough to fund their pensioning, massive transaction costs from power-based to market-based income distributions.

My realistic position for a "future of liberty" is apparently inconsistent: delegitimate politics, as the only way to eliminate political obstacles to libertarianism; and a gradualistic approach to minimize the "transition" costs from statism to liberty. Realistically, it is impossible for politics to be libertarian; but also a quick transition may be socially disruptive. In such situation, statist demagoguery is more likely to succeed than libertarianism.

N.B. In order to anticipate possible criticisms, I admit that the term "Libertarian policy" makes no sense: two words combined that can't make sense... I know... but I think my argument is clear anyway.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Political Minorities, Economic Niches...

It is often said that democracy and the market are one and the same thing. Democracy is political liberalism, market is economic democracy... It is often said, even more surprisingly, that somehow the first form of liberalism is nobler than the second... But democratic propaganda cannot disguise the political process into something different from a criminal activity.

Politics forces uniformity; the market, on the other hand, is intrinsically pluralistic. To be a minority on the market just means to form a market niche. You don't need to obey the political winner; you don't need to fund their decisions; you don't need to buy their "products". In politics, losers' preferences are irrelevant: minorities cannot work to implement what they prefer.

Minorities cannot reduce losses by astensionism: entering and exiting the game is not a voluntary choice. Those who don't vote always lose. They can't withdraw unhurt.

The only way to be safe is to win. And to win means to ally with other people in heterogeneous groups, with no common ideas but power-hunger, with no common scope but victory. To mantain this conglomerate united, you need to rob the loser and divide the spoils: politics causes conflict, to obtain power, to avoid being victim of other people's power, to justify the means through which power has been achieved.

On the market, on the other hand, everybody chooses what he prefers. Minorities are not submitted: they form niches. Minorities remain free to choose: they don't need to obey. Minorities cannot be forced to foot the bill of the winners' decisions. And if you want to cooperate, it is because you think cooperation to be mutually beneficial. Cooperation is more stable, and it is not based on deprivation and loot.

If markets were a democracy, everybody would be drinking Coke instead of Pepsi; everybody would be reading Nozick instead of Rothbard; everybody would be eating Angus beef instead of Kobe beef... if we wouldn't like a world like this, why we tolerate such a great part of our lives to be controlled and determine by the democratic political process?

Market is freedom. Democracy is not.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Paretian liberals?

Mathematical formalism seems particularly apt to cause misunderstanding. One example is the so-called Sen's "paretian liberal impossibility theorem".

I will describe the theorem with a short and simple example. Suppose that there are two people, a puritan and a libertine; and one only copy of a certain obscene book (for example, "Das Kapital" by Karl Marx). This book can be read by only one person, situations "P" (the puritan reads the book) or "L" (the libertine reads it), or destroyed, situation "N". So, we have two persons and three choices.

The puritan has this set of preferences: N > P > L. This means that he prefers the book to be destroyed rather than reading the book, but he prefers to read the book rather than leaving it to the libertine. The libertine has this set of preferences: P > L > N. This means that the libertine wants the puritan to read the book, otherwise he prefers to read it by himself, while his worst case is that the book is destroyed.

Following Sen, we are going to define liberalism so that every individual has "the last word" at least on one problem: the so called "minimal liberalism" condition is that at least for one choice between two alternatives, the individual choice coincides with the social choice.

Suppose the choice to be between L and N, and leave the "social choice" to the libertine: he will prefer L to N. On the other hand, suppose the choice to be left to the puritan to be between N and P: he will prefer N to P.

These two conditions on the social choice imply, in order for social preferences to be transitive, that L > N > P. That is, L > P. The "problem" is that L is Pareto inefficient with respect to P. In fact, both the libertine and the puritan prefer P to L, for the initial hypotheses. Minimal liberalism is Pareto-inefficient.

However we define rights, there will always be one set of individual preferences which will give rise to the "paretian liberal impossibility paradox". Inefficiency arises for a particular definition of minimal rights, but even if we change the content of these rights, we can always change preferences in order to achieve the paradox...

I'm not an economist and I may get it wrong, but I think the reason is that if we have three choices, A, B and C, and impose the condition for which individual X is decisive between A and B, and individual Y is decisive between B an C (this formulation is general: A, B and C can be chosen or permutated freely); then we can obtain the paradox by choosing X preferences to be C > A > B and Y preferences to be B > C > A. I'm not a mathematician, and I hold that this is enough to show the theorem.

X will force social preferences to be A > B; Y will force social preferences to be B > C; thus A > B > C; thus A > C, even though they both prefer C to A. This gives rise to Pareto-inefficiency.

Notwithstanding these mathematical doubts, the real question is: "What have all this technicalities to do with (classical) liberalism?". My answer is: nothing.

Turning back to our example (the so-called "Lady Chatterley paradox"... the guy who created the paradox didn't despise Marx enough...), we have that, in a liberal society, the book will be owned either by the puritan or by the libertine. In the former case, the puritan will choose, in the latter case the choice will be up to the libertine. There is no "at least one minimal right for each person" condition in this case, because minimal liberalism, as defined by Sen, has nothing to do with liberalism. Liberalism is about legitimate control over resources, that is, property rights.

Even more important, if the puritan owns the book, he has the right to choose between N and P: he has no right, in a liberal society, to force the libertine to read the book; on the other hand, if the libertine owns the book, his choice is between N and L, for the same reason. Ok, I'm criticizing the particular example and not the general theorem. Anyway, this forces us to think about another problem: the "unrestricted domain clause" is a totalitarian hypothesis, and has nothing to do with liberalism at all (it is clear that I use the term "liberalism" as equivalent to "libertarianism", and I don't care a damn about contemporary "liberals", such as Rawls).

There is a third possibility, that the book is res nullius (it has no owner), but it is irrelevant: until it has no owner, there is not a problem; as soon as it gets one, we are back to the "either the libertine or the puritan own the book" case).

The Sen paradox does not prove the inefficiency of classical liberalism, but rather Professor Sen's misunderstanding of what liberalism really is.