Jon Stewart’s questions to libertarians

Last year, American funny-man Jon Stewart asked a series of questions to libertarians. Since then, plenty of people have responded, giving fairly comprehensive answers. I agree with some of those answers, but I thought I’d put together my own “short answers” anyway… only six months late.

1. Is government the antithesis of liberty?

We need definitions. If “liberty” means people being allowed to act voluntarily with each other (as I define it) then the antithesis is involuntary behaviour — e.g. violence, coercion, theft, murder. The government certainly does all of that, but they are not the only example (eg mafia, rapists). Further, some libertarians will suggest that if a limited government is able to decrease “private” violence & coercion, then they might even be a force for good. (This idea is known as the “night-watchman government” or “minarchism”.)

It’s worth quickly noting that government does not mean “governance”. You would still have much governance in a libertarian society (for example, cricket rules).

2. One of the things that enhances freedoms are roads. Infrastructure enhances freedom. A social safety net enhances freedom.

Definitions again. You call these things “freedoms” but that expands the meaning of freedom to include everything, and therefore makes the word meaningless. Things like roads, infrastructure and social security are all good things, but the word “freedom” does not mean “good”.

Secondly, a voluntary society would provide roads, infrastructure and social security. Indeed, the market and community groups provided these things before the government got involved, and they often did it better, and at a lower cost, and without using coercion. Win-win-win. Given that the voluntary solution is inherently more moral (ie no coercion) and has historically worked better than the government, then surely the burden of proof rests on the statists to prove that their coercive approach works. That proof doesn’t exist.

3. What should we do with the losers that are picked by the free market?

First, the “market” doesn’t pick anything as it doesn’t have consciousness. It is dangerous to anthropomorphise in social science as it leads to weird and silly conclusions. The market is simply the voluntary interaction of free people.

Also, it isn’t clear what is meant by “losing”. It would be strange to insist that income or wealth is the only indication of “winning” since most people care about much more than money. It is certainly true that in a free society, some people would be sad and would fail to reach their goals in life. But that is true of all social systems, and from all available evidence, it is a voluntary society that best allows people to live a rich and meaningful life.

4. Do we live in a society or don’t we? Are we a collective? Everybody’s success is predicated on the hard work of all of us; nobody gets there on their own. Why should it be that the people who lose are hung out to dry? For a group that doesn’t believe in evolution, it’s awfully Darwinian.

Yes, we live in a society. Libertarians have never been against “society” or “community” and that is a false choice created by the left to make themselves look kind-hearted. We all believe in society, the real choice is whether we should live in a voluntary society (as preferred by libertarians) or whether we should live in a government-controlled society, carefully regulated and micro-managed by politicians and bureaucrats.

Humans are fundamentally social animals, and our interactions with others can be either “voluntary” or “involuntary”. Both morally, and looking at the evidence about what works best for human welfare, voluntary society is the better option.

It is a fallacy to suggest that a government run system protects everybody, or else the government run programs of the past would have already solved homelessness, depression, suicide, illiteracy, etc. A voluntary society is less likely to leave people “hung out to dry” since nearly everybody has friends and family, not to mention the millions of people and billions of dollars spent each year by people helping strangers. And these people who come together in voluntary society are much more likely to have the right incentives and right information to be able to help those genuinely in need. It is no coincidence that social capital has decreased as the size of government has increased.

5. In a representative democracy, we are the government. We have work to do, and we have a business to run, and we have children to raise. We elect you as our representatives to look after our interests within a democratic system.

Just plain wrong. You might as well say that we are also dinosaurs. The government is a very specific entity, and it does not mean the same thing as society. Indeed, the common leftist mistake of confusing “society” with “government” indicates a very shallow view of society. The simple fact is that “government” claims the right to initiate violence & coercion, while the rest of us are not allowed.

Just because a “representative democracy” type of government has politicians who tell us pretty stories about how much they care, that doesn’t not change the fundamental point that government (of any variety) is coercive and generally ineffective. Democracy may be better than some other forms of government, but that doesn’t justify bad public policy.

As for the morality of the system, it is very strange to insist that there is any morality in two rapists and a woman in a dark alley voting on whether to have sex. A more moral position is that action should be voluntary.

6. Is government inherently evil?

Depends on what you mean by evil, but I would say “yes” since it is by definition an organisation that commits violence, coercion, theft, etc. But I don’t rule out the possibility that sometimes evil acts are necessary. The more interesting question is whether government is a “necessary evil” or an “unnecessary evil”… and about that question libertarians will often disagree, and my most honest answer is that I simply don’t know.

7. Sometimes to protect the greater liberty you have to do things like form an army, or gather a group together to build a wall or levy.

True. Sometimes we also form unions or sporting teams or neighbourhood watch groups or friendly societies or churches or food co-ops. Libertarians fully support the idea of people voluntarily coming together to achieve common goals. Lighthouses were often given as an example of a good that could only be produced by government, but the first lighthouses were actually privately made & run. If wars had to be privately financed, then we would have fewer wars… which might be a good thing.

It may be true that some things the government can do better. Libertarians will often debate about the role of government (from “none” to “nearly nothing” to “these few things”) but the important point to remember is that the burden of proof rests with the person who wants to advocate violence. Just like with starting a war, or putting somebody in jail, the starting assumption should be peace and freedom… and only with a very strong case should we consider the possibility of violence or coercion.

8. As soon as you’ve built an army, you’ve now said government isn’t always inherently evil because we need it to help us sometimes, so now… it’s that old joke: Would you sleep with me for a million dollars? How about a dollar? — Who do you think I am? — We already decided who you are, now we’re just negotiating. 

First, many libertarians don’t concede the need for a government army. But second, even if you do accept that the argument regarding government coercion for national defense has strong evidence, that doesn’t automatically mean that the argument for all other government coercion automatically passes. The starting assumption should always be for peace and freedom… and only with strong evidence should we consider violence. For the vast majority of government programs, there is little or no evidence of a net benefit (and often evidence of considerable harm).

9. You say: government which governs least governments best. But that were the Articles of Confederation. We tried that for 8 years, it didn’t work, and went to the Constitution. 


10. You give money to the IRS because you think they’re gonna hire a bunch of people, that if your house catches on fire, will come there with water.

Maybe that’s why you give money to the IRS, but most people give the money because if they don’t then people with guns will put them in a jail.

If you think the case for giving money to the IRS is strong, then there is a simple win-win idea… we make it voluntary. You can pay income tax for your fire-fighting benefits, while others may choose to not pay income tax and buy their fire-fighting services elsewhere. To each their own… without violence or coercion. Nobody imposing their religion or personal morality on others, and tolerance of diversity and choice. Beautiful stuff.

11. Why is it that libertarians trust a corporation, in certain matters, more than they trust representatives that are accountable to voters The idea that I would give up my liberty to an insurance company, as opposed to my representative seems insane. 

In a free world, you don’t have to “give up” your liberty at all. But if you do want to give up your liberty to a politician (or a religious leader, or anybody else) then in a free society that is your choice. If you want to let others make your decisions for you, then go ahead… the problem comes when you want to force others to follow your leader.

Libertarians do not trust corporations any more than other people. But we do recognise that interaction with business is voluntary which is a very different word to involuntary. At no time in history has Walmart invaded Iraq… or McDonalds taken 50% of your income against your will… or Nike put you in jail for smoking a joint… or Citibank banned gay marriage.

Finally, if you are worried about big business, then you should want to see smaller government since it is government rules and regulations that help protect big business from competition. Regulation is particularly burdensome on small and new businesses and community groups, and government often prop up or bail out big business. A libertarian society would still see some big businesses… but there would be far more opportunity for new entrants and niche markets, which would increase innovation and force the big businesses to be more responsive to customer needs or lose out.

12. Why is it that with competition, we have such difficulty with our health care system? … and there are choices within the education system. 

Well yes, there was choice of sorts in Soviet Russia too… that doesn’t make it libertarian. Both health and education are massively government controlled, both in America and Australia and in nearly all developed countries now.

13. Would you go back to 1890?

If time travel was possible, I’d like to visit lots of different times.

Regarding the rules of the 1890s, some of them were better and some of them were worse than what we have today. I would like to “go back” to more economic freedom and jurisdictional competition, but I would not want to “go back” to the laws regarding racism & sexism & homophobia.

Of course, nobody is arguing that we should return to the technology of the 1890s (and nobody sane is pretending that government created the technology of the last 100 years).

14. If we didn’t have government, we’d all be in hovercrafts, and nobody would have cancer, and broccoli would be ice-cream. 

If broccoli was ice-cream, then would it really be broccoli? And cancer is not relevant anymore, because the government has already cured it. But seriously, in a free society, there would be many different types of communities trying out many different lifestyle choices. Diversity & tolerance are good things… right?

15. Unregulated markets have been tried. the 80’s and the 90’s were the robber baron age. These regulations didn’t come out of an interest in restricting liberty. What they did is came out of an interest in helping those that had been victimized by a system that they couldn’t fight back against.

The 1980s and 1990s had a huge amount of regulation and taxes. Do you really not know this? The regulation was (and still is) so stifling that it prevents thousands of small businesses from competing against the big business you pretend to oppose but actually end up protecting.

I agree that people don’t introduce bad policy out of malice, but that doesn’t turn it into good policy. Poor people can’t eat good intentions. There is a seemingly natural instinct that people have to try to regulate the risk out of life, but that isn’t possible… and in most instances those regulations will drive up prices for consumers, drive down wages for workers, drive down returns for savers and retirees, and then they might even make the problem worse by creating “moral hazard’ by distorting our perception of risk. Indeed, this was a major cause of the American housing bubble & bust.

16. Why do you think workers that worked in the mines unionized?

Because it enhanced their bargaining power. Voluntary unions are a good thing, just like the rest of voluntary society and voluntary business.

17. Without the government there are no labor unions, because they would be smashed by Pinkerton agencies or people hired, or even sometimes the government. 

You just wrote that without government the unions would be smashed by the government. You might want to re-phrase that. And the allegation that unions wouldn’t exist in a free society is disproved by history. It is true that when the government supports something (like unions, or excessive risk taking by banks) then they get more of it… but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Just because voluntary unions are a good thing, that doesn’t mean that involuntary unions are a good thing.

18. Would the free market have desegregated restaurants in the South, or would the free market have done away with miscegenation, if it had been allowed to? Would Marten Luther King have been less effective than the free market? Those laws sprung up out of a majority sense of, in that time, that blacks should not.. The free market there would not have supported integrated lunch counters.

In America, you had government mandated segregation and then government mandated integration… you never tried “free choice”. Before MLK it was the government that enforced racist policies. If there was a free market instead, then many businesses would have been racist (like the government) but some would have pursued more “progressive” policies, and those examples would likely have sped up the changing attitudes towards more tolerance. Consider that it was in semi-libertarian UK that slavery was first abolished.

Note that it was only after most people had changed their minds that the government “did the right thing”. They did not lead anything… they simply followed a social change that was happening outside of the government, being led by people in voluntary society. And since society was changing, business practices would have had to change also (unless the businesses were being protected by the government you so love).

Consider this — anti-racism policies will only be implemented once they are politically popular, but once they are politically popular, then they aren’t really necessary since it shows that most people are already against racism. If you look at the last 200 years, there is no doubt that racial minorities in America would have been better off without government involvement.

19. Government is necessary but must be held accountable for its decisions. 

Lol… yeah, good luck with that.

Go ahead trying to turn government into the magical mystical machine of love and wisdom, but when you notice 20 years later that you’re still failing (like the people in the thousands of years before you) then perhaps you should pause and consider whether maybe freedom works better than institutionalised violence?

Sadly, while you continue experimenting with failure after failure, you aren’t just trying that experiment out for yourself. You also want to force it on everybody else too… using violence & coercion.

Note: this was cross-posted at my personal blog —

29 thoughts on “Jon Stewart’s questions to libertarians

  1. Solid answers. Now get a libertarian on his show to answer them. Any political ideology that requires second order thought is too difficult to grasp for the common masses unless it is shoved in their face and broken down into bite sized chunks for them. Just look at the faces of anyone who speaks to an austrian thinker about monetary policy…

  2. One important point many libertarians seem to miss is that there is a legitimate role for government as well as the illegitimate roles libertarians oppose. (Although it is debated whether it is a necessary role.) The role libertarians oppose is intervention which infringes on individual liberties. But the legitimate role is the one in which the government intervenes to protect individual liberties from infringement by other individuals. The first role is criminal, the second protects against crime. Non-libertarians define “crime” to mean breaking any law. That is clearly false, since most non-libertarians would not consider it a crime to break Nazi laws for extermination of Jews or similar communist laws. Libertarians define “crime” to mean infringement upon the liberties of individuals, which means that many laws which now exist, which give the state the power to infringe on liberties, are actually criminal.

  3. What you said! Yes! What happened to the John Stewart Show? Is it still shown here?

  4. ‘For a group that doesn’t believe in evolution, it’s awfully Darwinian’

    FFS sake, is he seriously suggesting that libertarians = young earth creationists? You should have called out that idiotic statement, Stewart clearly doesn’t understand libertarianism if he thinks that’s true.

  5. ^ Many libertarians don’t believe in evolution. Collectivism is based on atheism. Individualism is based on theism. Evolution is an atheist notion, a substitute for a divine creator. There is zero supporting evidence for the validity of evolution. Atheism removes any moral basis for a just society and therefore any appeal to the rights of individual liberty. Evolution makes man subject to survival of the fittest based on his genetic inheritance. The eugenicists of the early 20th century were socialists – almost the entire socialist movement, from communists to Nazis, were eugenicists. Margaret Sanger was a leading eugenicist and a socialist.

  6. I have no idea what most libertarians believe in… but most libertarians that I know understand the beauty of evolution and aren’t very religious. Indeed, Austrian economics is very similar to “evolutionary economics” which stresses the constantly changing nature of social systems.

    The idea that morality only exists if there is a sky-fairy who has created a spooky magic book is very strange, to be polite. Sure… believe what you like… but you don’t need to make up fake ghosts or cloud monsters or zombie-Jews or whatever to have morality.

    Actually, I worry a bit about people who can only be moral when they follow the strange mumblings of madmen written down in an often-confused book that justifies genocide and slavery. Are they actually saying that if they stopped believing in ghosts and fairies, then they would start killing, stealing & raping? Kinda worrying eh.

  7. ‘Many libertarians don’t believe in evolution’ – There might be one or two such as yourself, but I’d guess no more than the percentage of the general population who believe in literally biblical or other religious folklore creation stories.

    Equating libertarianism with creationism is plain silly, and designed as a smear on libertarians – it should not be let through to the keeper, but called out for the BS that it is each time it comes up.

  8. John, you are right and I am wrong.

    Papachango, you are right and I am wrong.

    [This comment has been edited for clarity]

  9. Pingback: Jon Stewart’s questions to libertarians « John Humphreys

  10. Whilst a Communist had to be an atheist, quite a few collectivists didn’t go that far. Conversely, I am an esoteric Christian who believes in reincarnation, which means that I think that people are born into circumstances they have either earned or deserve- so people don’t need to feel guilty if they happen to be good-looking (as seems to befall movie stars.) This belief insulates me from believing that society MUST fix social injustices. I am sociable, but not socialist.

  11. what’s with the edited comment conceding defeat? It replaced another long comment making the absurd claim, among other things, that libertarianism originates from a belief in God.

  12. Papachango – the sissy, pseudo-libertarian founder of this site (“a central portal for information about libertarianism”) feels threatened by open debate.

    Libertarianism is based on the principle that individuals have inalienable rights. There is no basis for a belief in such rights without a belief in a God who gave them to us. There is no basis for individual rights in the animal kingdom, which is what evolutionists believe we are part of. Totalitarians believe rights come from the government. Libertarians believe they come from – where? From God. The authors of the U.S. Constitution recognised that without a belief in God, there are no individual rights.

  13. loki3 – I do agree that it’s not a good look for the owner of a liberatrian site to censor comments unless they’re really beyond the pale – we tend to be pretty fierce defenders of free speech normally. On the other hand it’s a privately owned site, and given we support property rights the owner can do what he or she likes.

    But pardon me if I call BS on your contention that libertariansim comes from Christianity and believing in God. Most Libertarians believe in natural rights, not God-given ones. The only link between classical liberalism and Christianity is because of the reformation in Europe, which reduced the power of the Church, and led to the Enlightenment. It’s based on the idea of people like JS Mill, Adam Smith, John Locke, then economists like friedman and Hayek etc, hardly theologists.

    Of course there are plentu of libertarians who are also religious, others who are agnsotic or athiest, but you can belive what you want.

  14. Papachango – I’m not saying John has no right to censor comments how he likes on his own website but it’s more than a “bad look”. First, John’s dismissal of religion as a fairy tale displays the very lack of intellectualism that those very comments are ascribing to theists. You can’t reduce two thousand years of serious and thoughtful theology to an irrational belief in fairies. Second, his censoring (whether or not he has the right) of a comment for no other reason than that he disagrees with it shows the hypocrisy of his stated reason for creating this site. Either he created the site for open discussion or he didn’t.

    Generally, I am tired of this effete, alleged libertarianism which defends fiat currency, carbon taxes, denies God and advocates parties (a concept historically of leftist origin and collectivist in nature), supports the Republicans and the LNP and on and on. When are you people going to get out of your sandboxes and develop gonads? You have feet in both camps, which will force you always to revert, in practice, to collectivism. You are not revolutionaries, you are old farts prattling around a barbecue..

    You don’t have to pardon yourself to disagree with me, though calling my comments BS is not an argument. What most libertarians believe is merely an appeal to majority, which most libertarians (being in the minority themselves) should know is a fallacy. Nobody has yet shown me a basis for natural rights independent of God. Rights and morality are reflected in nature as God created it, but they do not come from nature (and neither does nature). Nature exhibits design, and design does not originate with the thing designed. If morality is also built into nature, it not an indication that it is of natural origin.

    It is debatable whether liberalism is anything to do with the Reformation. If anything, most of the communist cults of the middle ages arose in Protestant countries, though they were the result of heresies. Reducing the power of the church is not identical to reducing political power itself. The French Revolution reduced church power yet replaced it with secular regimes. (Certain Christian sects influential in the ideologies which led to the French Revolution and clergy were among it’s leadership.)

    The Enlightenment (on the Continent) was secular, but it was socialist. The British/Scottish Enlightenment was Christian and liberal.

    The fact that economics is separate from theology does not mean there is no link between ideas in both fields. Science is concerned with the natural world yet it too was founded on Christian assumptions, since the early scientists were Christians.

    Milton Friedman is not a libertarian. He is a monetarist and was instrumental in the formulation of the modern U.S. income tax system.

  15. Loki — I reserve the right to edit or remove comments when I consider them to be sufficiently stupid or off-topic. Most of your comments should then be removed, so the fact that you have any comments left is a sign of my amazing tolerance. No need to thank me.

    You obviously don’t need a sky-fairy to have morality. I don’t believe in a sky-fairy, and I believe that human self-ownership comes logically from the fact that humans perceive ourselves to have free will. The perception of free will leads to a perception of self-ownership (which I take as inalienable) and a sense that decisions have a moral dimension, which is why humans have been called the “moral animal”. The fact that people care about their own well-being combined with perception of our decision making ability lead us to become utility-maximising creatures… so my philosophy perfectly well explains both the deontelogical and consequentialist rationales for libertarianism, without relying on the existence of the Easter Bunny or any other hob-goblins.

    People can be a libertarian for many reasons, but one common reason is that they respect human self-ownership. If you believe in human self-ownership for some mythological reason, then that’s great.

    Finally, the habit of saying “so-and-so isn’t a libertarian” because you disagree with them on some things is boring, pointless and wrong-headed. Milton Friedman represents what could perhaps best be called “moderate libertarianism” or “classical liberalism”, which is the most common type of libertarianism.

    Anyway, this is all massively off-topic. If you want to write a “libertarianism needs god” article, then please write it and send it to me, and I promise to publish it and not edit any comments. Perhaps papa could write a “libertarianism doesn’t need god” article and we could run them next to each other. Could be fun.

  16. Well said John…
    Question. Have you done much study on the works of one Friedrich Nietzsche? particularly on the subject of Perspectivism?
    If so could you comment on that thanks.

  17. John – if you consistently edited comments on the grounds of stupidity, you would have a lot of far more stupid comments to get to before mine, and you haven’t raised a finger there. I’m talking about plain abusive (or at least ad hominem) replies which are not even attempts at logical argument. The comment by me which you removed was not stupid. It is merely that you think belief in God is stupid. All that means is that you disagree, not that I am stupid.

    However, congratulations on forming the beginnings of what is potentially some kind of argument in your latest comment above. I may be able to work with that.

    Comments routinely go off topic here. However, they usually still relate to the general topic of the site. Nobody ever intends to lead the comments off topic, the discussion just moves in that direction. It wasn’t me who brought up the issue of religion. It is raised in one of Stewart’s questions and I was not the first to comment on that question – I replied to another person who did. Because it is raised in the article, it is not really off-topic.

    My opinion about what and who is truly libertarian is my own opinion and I don’t pretend it to be any more than that, but I will state it as such. Others may disagree. If it bores you, switch off. You state and others here routinely state your own opinions without apology. The heading of your article on fractional reserve banking referred to libertarians who disagreed as “stupid”. I usually don’t go quite that far.

  18. Whilst you might want to believe that libertarianism doesn’t need a religion, looking at history shows that religion does influence what develops as libertarianism! Our Western culture is soaked in Christian Precepts, which we still accept as natural, even if we don’t know where they came from. When I invoke the Golden Rule, “You should treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself,” it seems natural to conclude that freedom, not slavery, is what all individuals would want. Where would you find a similar rule in any other religion? The Koran gives no instructions of this nature, just piece-meal ad-hoc advice. Buddhism and Hinduism would probably advise against helping others, as you might be interfering in their karma. I don’t think Mohammedism can ever embrace libertarianism, as state and religion are always supposed to be entwined. Also, pagans are supposed to be slaves, according to the Koran. No way to get to freedom of belief from that! (Yes, I am aware that Europeans also engaged in the slave trade, but there is no commandment to do so, or to make slaves of pagans- but the Koran tells believers to do so!)
    So I maintain that Christianity leads to a libertarian (NOT libertine!) outlook- and that the others can’t.

  19. “I believe that human self-ownership comes logically from the fact that humans perceive ourselves to have free will. The perception of free will leads to a perception of self-ownership (which I take as inalienable) and a sense that decisions have a moral dimension, which is why humans have been called the “moral animal”. The fact that people care about their own well-being combined with perception of our decision making ability lead us to become utility-maximising creatures.”

    You argue that individual rights to freedom follow from free will. Other atheists (and some theists) have argued the opposite. Socialists of course recognise free will. It is free will which they say is a threat to society and must be restrained.

    So on what basis do you disagree with them? Perhaps on the basis that libertarianism results in the best outcomes for the most individuals and society as a whole. But why can’t socialism do that? Because man is naturally self-interested? But many atheists (and theists) believe that man’s nature can be altered (by environment, upbringing, education, conditioning, social system etc.)

    The founders of the U.S. didn’t go for that. As Christians, they believed that man is self-interested because of his fallen nature and is not “perfectible”. Many atheists, however, are more hopeful. They don’t have a reason to believe that man is corrupt, so they think they can engineer man to eliminate self-interest.

    Free will by itself does not imply rights. Free will may well imply the opposite: the right to restrict the other man’s free will, if you have the superior strength to do it. Free will by itself is not inalienable – it only requires superior force. People care about their OWN well being. One man’s “well being” can be the other man’s deprivation, regardless of what the other man’s decision might be. Utility maximisation can include the utilisation, through coercion, of other people.

    Most people DON’T respect self-ownership at least not consistently. That is why libertarians are a small minority – an extremist, lunatic fringe. So why do libertarians believe it and not others? Where did that belief originally come from, if not from simple perception?

    Man is not a “moral animal”. He observes morality, but he doesn’t always follow it. As you say, man is self-interested, and self-interest can override morality. Man follows morality when he perceives it to be in his self interest to follow it; e.g. when somebody steals HIS property. Or a man may have been brought up to be moral. In that case, it is because society prior to that decided that some kind of “morality” is in it’s overall best interests.

    Many atheists oppose the whole idea of morality. Because man is perfectible, they don’t think we need it. They think that it is something the church invented to keep men in subjection. They think that morality is just part of religion, which they of course oppose. Marx (an atheist) said that morality is a tool of the ruling class for controlling the lower classes in their own interests. Marx said that there is no such thing as human rights, that they (being based on morality) are a tool of the elite, which explains why the left demand “human rights” more than anybody else.)

    Atheists are forced to acknowledge the usefulness of morality in maintaining social order for the time being. They use it themselves to socially and politically influence people, because most people are unfortunately still under the influence of religion.

    Atheists who do believe in morality got it from Christians, who got it from the Bible. Atheists try to think of some other origin for it after the fact, with no real success. The truly honest atheists don’t bother trying and refuse to believe any social system which is based on morality. Atheists who believe in morality have merely not been wholly converted.

  20. Comments on the site are edited by the author of the original article. I prefer comments to remain on-topic. I don’t think belief in a higher power is stupid.

    I disagree with socialists for lots of reasons, though I can’t respond to each individually in this post because there are many socialists with many different rationales and many different views on “free will”.

    I do agree that self-ownership leads to better outcomes. You ask why can’t socialism do that — Hayek & Mises answered this question effectively about 90 years ago in the “socialist calculation debates”. In short, the answer is “knowledge” and “incentives”.

    I do agree that man is naturally utility-maximising, though that can be slightly different to “self-interested” (depending on how you define those words). As Adam Smith well explained, we are both self-centred and other-centred. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t care about somebody. To the degree that humans are self-centred, the market works best. To the degree that humans are other-interested then voluntary civil society works the best. In no scenario does government work the best.

    I also agree that man is not “perfectible”… whatever that is supposed to mean.

    Note that I never said that free will leads to rights. My claim is weaker… that the perception of free will leads me to the conclusion that human self-ownership should be respected. That way I don’t need to get distracted by debates about determinism.

    Discussion of “rights” often get caught up with people using different definitions of the word “rights”. I use the word to mean what people *should* have, and the central right is the right to self-ownership. I believe that from that comes the right to engage in voluntary behaviour, including trade and homesteading… and therefore self-ownership leads naturally to property rights. This right can then be re-phrased as “the right to engage in voluntary behaviour with others”.

    The reason for my claim of the right to self-ownership is that we unavoidably perceive ourselves to be “us” in a way that I believe in unique in the animal world — so that we perceive ourselves to make moral decisions and to control our destiny. I know that I think of myself as “me”… and I extrapolate that you also think that you are “you”. I observe that I am very much invested in this “me” creature, and I assume you have a similar attachment to yourself. Noticing that this self-awareness is what makes me “me” I therefore must respect this self-awareness generally, or else I am denying the thing that makes me “me”…. and so I must respect the self-ownership of similarly self-aware beings wherever they exists, which means in all humans (and perhaps self-aware aliens if they ever land).

    That’s my metaphysics… but for the sake of politics it’s not really important how you get to the conclusion of “self-ownership”. If you get to that conclusion with the use of religion, then we get to the same conclusion in different ways.


    Saying man is a “moral animal” does not mean that man follows morality. It means that man is aware that there is a topic called “morality”. I very much doubt that tigers debate the ethics of their kill, or that insects debate the ethics of walking on my picnic, or that a plant debates the morality of growing towards the sun. The moral rules that people choose are determined by many different things, including social pressure, innate feelings, and evolutionary psychology.

    I have no idea if there are atheists who think as you claim… but if they exist, there are very few of them and I have never met them. They certainly don’t warrant much consideration and it seems to me that you spend a lot of time fighting against an enemy that is mostly non-existent. Much like Christians fighting against a horde of non-existent satanists. (And yes, I know that Lavey created a “church of satan” in the 20th century, but if you read his motivation is was partly to mock the fact that Christians always thought there were satanists around every corner.)

    Suffice to say, most (all?) atheists do have some sort of moral code, and that it doesn’t require Christianity. Societies without Christianity also managed to invent the notions of “don’t kill” and “don’t steal” etc.

    Instead of trying to pretend that your religion is necessary for morality, it would be much more valuable to directly engage lefties on their morality and get them to dig down so that they have to admit to themselves and others that they fundamentally prefer violence over peace in the name of achieving some unattainable “great society”. Then we can quote Mussolini at them and laugh… and point to all the evidence that their violent ways do not work.

    Now — I have made an effort and engaged with you. If you want to continue this discussion, then I ask you to please write a blog post and continue the discussion that way.

  21. A reasonable request. However, if I posted an article on that topic, it would provoke a debate in the comments to that article anyway, probably a longer one than we have so far had on this page. What’s the difference? Either way, I think issues get properly sorted in debate, though less sincere or intelligent debaters can get in the way of that. And like I said, this is not off-topic – this issue was raised, or at least implied, in one of Stewart’s questions.

  22. Re Question #1 – I’m tossing around the concept of a ‘coercion ratio’ as a measure of governmental abuse of position – the portion of a government income that is obtained through coercive means.

  23. Loki — it’s just the rules of the blog. I can be a comments nazi sometimes, depending on my mood… but I don’t edit comments on other people’s posts. Also, if you write an article it will be more widely read than if you write a comment.

    Intuitive — an interesting idea, though I think you’ll find that the “coercion ratio” is nearly 100%. I had previously wanted to calculate a different ratio… estimating the amount of coercion done by government vis-a-vis the hypothetical amount of coercion stopped by government police & courts. But it’s nearly impossible to calculate.

  24. #2. Government is and should be bedrock, without risk. Set a solid, unleveraged foundation in government and allow risk to be assumed by other actors.

    #3. Without government intervention, society is freed up to honourably treat its ‘losers’, with appropriate social consequences for dependancy.

    #4. Yes we live in a society, and government should recognise that. Recognition of the input others provide is captured in the value we place on monopoly rights to land and resources. Provided that efforts that serve to improve the value of those rights are also recognised, full monopoly right taxation provides a market sensetive level of funding for government.

    #5.What John said.

    #6. No. Government is inherently powerful.

    #10. Taxation should not be coercive, and non-coercive forms of taxation are possible.

    #11. In all instances, interaction government is required to impose a rent. That is the danger of government, and it is present whether the actor is an individual, a corporation or a religion.

    #18. All real social change is voluntary and cannot be forced. Forced social change leads to resentment and magnifies any existing tension. The right to discriminate should be taken back from the government and returned to the community where it serves a valid and necessary purpose.

  25. Yes, but some of that revenue from services is only achieved because of coercive restrictions that prevent others from competing against the government providers.

  26. True. Really needs tighter definition to be calculable; it’s pretty hard to estimate how much difference those restrictions make. In this instance, in order to have a viable measure, I’d be tempted to give the benefit of the doubt to them in the case of payment for service rendered.

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