Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Three rules for good living.

First, my apologies for being away, but I'm back.

Today I was doing some shopping and found myself humming some of the music of Virgil Gibson, the lead singer from the original Platters. I recently became a fan, not a fam in the rabid, stalking sense, just a fan in the sense that I enjoy his music, I enjoy his style and I like the man, even if we would vehemently disagree about religion.

During my recent trip I spent a short time talking with Virgil, who had expressed something to me about how he was impressed with libertarians and basically realized that is what he has always been. He also told me about some of his charitable activities and the projects that he works with, especially with kids.

I was thinking about his charitable work today and with my own increasing emphasis on the need for charity to create a better world, one we can be proud of living in. From all of this I formulated what I consider to be the three rules for good living.

Rule #1: Never do anything to violate the life, liberty or property of another person.

This is the prime directive of libertarianism, which is an ethical system that tells me how I must treat others, at the very minimum. It is not the be all and end all of life, but it is the foundation on which all else has to be built. A good house must be built on a firm foundation. You need the foundation in order to have a good house but the foundation is NOT the house. You need more.

Rule #2: Take responsibility for yourself. It is your responsibility to pay your bills, correct your own mistakes, and sustain your own life.

The nature of our species is such that for us to live we have to have input. By input I mean we need certain resources directed to our uses. We need food, liquid, shelter, medical care and such. I like to look at life like a bank account. There are withdrawals and deposits and there is a balance. If you overdraw the account somebody has to pay.

If you overdraw your life account some else has to pay. There really is no such thing as a free lunch. We must find the resources we need someplace. We may borrow from others or we inflict the costs on others. If we do not pay the costs ourselves we are actually violating our first rule for living—–by imposing our costs on others we harm others.

This is easy to forget because the harm we inflict is often indirect. If I mug an old lady to buy something I right the harm I inflict is direct, explicit and guilt-inducing. It would be for most people, which is why only a few engage in open criminal assaults on others. This does not mean that they eschew such practices altogether, unfortunately they want the self-directed benefits of robbing others while trying to avoid the guilt-inducing aspect of the activity——they seek indirect means of inflicting harm on others and surround it with high-sounding, often altruistic, motivations.

The most efficient means of indirectly exploiting others is to hire political officials to do the work on your behalf. Frederic Bastiat put it well: "Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else."

You must take responsibility for yourself make sure your deposits do not exceed your withdrawals, and make sure you don't inflict harm on others. And you must make sure you don't inflict indirect harm on others as well. Don't hire state agents to steal on your behalf.

Rule #3: Try to do some good for others.

The first two rules prevent you from doing harm to others. And they require you to act in the voluntary sector in order to secure the inputs you need for life. That will mean that you must engage in trade. And if you only engage in voluntary exchange of goods and services then each such transaction will benefit others. That is one of the miracles of free exchange——it can increase total wealth with increased production.

For instance, if you sell a vegetable to a family you value the proceeds you receive higher than you value the vegetable. Similarly, they must value the vegetable higher than what they gave you. Both of you exchanged voluntarily and both of you were better off because of it.

And while market exchanges are wonderful, the reality of the world is that there are places in the world, and people who are unable to make those exchanges——often through no fault of their own.

I have seen enough of the world to know that there are governments and systems which create obstacles preventing people from doing well. One of the most absurd claims made against libertarians is that they believe the poor and needy are at fault for their state. That undercuts a basic principle of libertarianism——that institutional structures can inflict great harm on people.

Throughout the Third World people suffer because their governments inflict marketing boards on them, which confiscate the wealth they produce. These boards force food producers to sell to them at below-market rates. The boards, who should I say the politicians who control them, then sell the produce at market rates keeping the proceeds while ripping-off the poor. We have ethanol subsidies that push up world food prices so that the poor have trouble feeding themselves. Around the world political structures reduce the supply of medical care while encouraging greater consumption, resulting in a constant process of rising costs and frustration.

While there is no shortage of individuals who made decisions that overdrew their life-account, the world if filled with people who are victims of coercive institutional structures which make it difficult for them to achieve a decent life.

Thre is a real, pervasive, and unavoidable need for human compassion and charity to undo some of the harms inflicted by coercive institutional structures.

Libertarians preach voluntary charity as being superior to state welfare. I believe that myself. And that brings me to a very important lesson for libertarians: libertarians who want private charity must themselves practice it.

Charity is necessary to undo these harms. I would argue that coercive charity is unlikely to effectively reduce the harms inflicted by coercive structures. Coercion begets coercion, harms inflict further harms. It is a never ending cycle of pain. Mitigating the pain inflicted by institutional structures requires peaceful, voluntary actions outside those structures.

Charity, voluntarily given, is inherently libertarian. It is also, I believe, one of the most subversive means available to undermine the coercive structures that are harming our world. Anyone can talk about healing our world, but it takes individual compassion to actually do it. Even if we were to successfully change the structure of the world, to one of entirely voluntary interactions and exchanges, it would take decades, perhaps centuries, to undo the misery and harm already inflicted. Long after a utopia is implemented, if such a thing is even feasible, there will be need for human compassion and charity.

Libertarians should practice what they preach. Those who are unable to do so should just shut up.

That brings me full circle to what Virgil Gibson was saying. He basically said he was an instinctual libertarian without realizing it. He was someone who believed in not harming others, and trying to undo the harms they had suffered already through his charitable actions. For me that made clearer the intimate link between fundamental libertarian principles, such as the non-initiation of force and voluntary exchange, with that of individual compassion and charity.

And just for the fun of it, here is some of Virgil in action.

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