Sunday, March 22, 2009

Means and ends and the classical liberal ethic.

It is an obvious truth that much of life is a series of choices of ends and means. Ends are the goals that we individually pursue. Means are the methods by which we seek to accomplish our goals.

Under classical liberal theory it is the means that may be the proper concern of the state and not the goals. It is the means that potentially violate the rights of others not the goals. Goals themselves have no ability to violate the life, liberty or property of others. Not even clearly malevolent goals can do that—such as the desired death of someone that you hate.

The goal itself does nothing; it is the means only, which has the ability to violate your rights. Take this murderous impulse as the goal and look at two different means to accomplish it. One is the direct action of physically causing your demise. I have obviously violated your rights if I kill you. But I could seek my goal through other means as well. For instance, I could put a curse on you. It is not likely to be effective. But my wish to see your demise itself does not violate your rights. There are a series of means by which I could ineffectively seek my goal. I could pray to some deity that he/she/it strike you down. I note that some fundamentalists engage in such prayers for people they dislike on a rather frequent basis. Eventually they get their prayers answered but then eventually they would have whether they were praying or not. Since their method had nothing to do with your death they have not violated your rights. At worst they have wasted their time.

For classical liberal theory it is the means that then may be regulated in some manner; and then only if the means is one that violates the life, liberty or property of another person. Mere “harm” is not enough. My refusing to purchase a product from you causes you some harm. It limits your income, but it violates no rights. I can even make you worse off than before without violating your rights. The purchase illustration shows that. Had I been a regular customer, one you counted on to buy products from you, and then I stopped buying, you are harmed. But unless I’ve some contract with you, requiring me to purchase items, your rights have not been touched.

Consider, as further illustration, a goal that is not inherently malevolent, such as giving charity. Let us say the charity involves the feeding of the hungry. I could whip up a meal in my kitchen and invited the hungry to my table. I can take the food to them where they are. I can hand them money and hope they will use it to purchase the food they need. I can distribute groceries to them. All of these are means to the same end. And all of them are consistent with the rights of others. I don’t have to violate the life, liberty or property of another is order to achieve them.

But, I can also feed the hungry by hitting you over the head and stealing your food. I could use some hacking method to access your bank account and transfer funds from your savings to my checking account and then write checks to the hungry or purchase them the food they need. In these examples, the same goal—feeding the hungry—is achieved by means that violate the rights of others. For that reason libertarians would argue that the exercise is illegitimate. However, it is critical to remember that the reason it is illegitimate is the means used not the goal being sought.

Many critics of libertarianism, on the Left and the Right both, like to ascribe motives onto libertarianism that just aren’t there. Charity is a prime example. That libertarians oppose achieving charitable goals by rights-violating means does not prove that libertarians are opposed to the goal. The Left, in this case, often claims that opposition to right-violating means is simply meant to disguise the malevolent nature of libertarians.

The Right pulls similar tricks in regards to morality issues. Libertarians don’t wish to use rights-violating means to stop individuals from using drugs—a worthy goal in my opinion—so they are accused of being in “favor of immorality.” Both the statist Right and the statist Left are similar in this regard. Both believe that the proper function of government is to control goals, as well as means. Libertarians, of all stripes, are attempting to limit state action to means alone; and then only to those means that violate the rights of others.

Most libertarians describe two methods by which rights may be violated. Those are force and fraud. The force method is obvious. I use violence, or the threat of violence, to induce you to bend to my will. It is sometimes direct—as in the case of the mugger in the dark alley or the burglary of a home. It is sometimes less direct—such as hiring someone else to do this action on my behalf. In libertarian theory it doesn’t matter whom the “someone else” is who is hired to do this. If it is a “hit man” sent out to kill you, it is wrong. But, if the agent violating your rights is doing so because I have elected him to engage in this action, it too is wrong. Rights are not the constructs of majority rule in libertarian theory.

It is wrong to assume that libertarians are unconcerned about the goals. Such an assumption indicates that one simply does not understand the libertarian ethic. Goals simply are the business of the individual. Means, and then only those means which violate rights, are the concern of others. And by concern I mean legal concern not individual, moral concern.

A libertarian may or may not approve of others seeking wealth. But provided that such wealth seeking is not done through rights-violating means then they are not open to legal recourse. Most libertarians do support wealth creation. Perhaps close to 100% do. But that is only if the wealth seeking is accomplished through means which do not violate rights. Oddly, while libertarians take precisely the same view toward charity that they do toward business, they are accused of being anti-charity and pro-business. Libertarians are saying that any goal can be pursued legitimately if it uses means that do not violate the rights of others. Opposition to illegitimate means does not mean opposition to the goal itself.

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