Human needs don’t exist

There are no human needs? What a monstrous thing to say! The very idea could only be entertained by someone living in relative comfort, someone whose needs are all taken care of – ‘I’ve got mine, screw you’ right?

I identify as a free market anarchist. Perhaps some will suspect that ideological convictions are leading me astray when I say that human needs don’t exist. I can imagine a defender of the state questioning my motives, for example. He or she might reason that because the modern state is the provider of people’s basic needs when other options fall through, the anarchist practises ‘need denial’ – either deliberately or subconsciously – in order to diminish the importance of the state.

This hypothetical statist is right at least about one thing: the way we think about human needs has political consequences. With my biases out in the open, I hope to explain why it’s correct to say that human needs don’t exist.

You can never be too careful?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs attaches the greatest importance to physiological needs. This category corresponds to the sense of ‘human needs’ or ‘basic needs’ that I’m interested in. Take the claim ‘Man needs food’. We can be confident that a person making this claim doesn’t have poisoned food in mind. Food is regarded as a needed good thanks to its ability to extend life. How can we justify granting a unique status to goods, like food, that extend life? One way would be to maintain that life is of infinite value. Indeed, many claim that ‘You can’t put a price on human life.’ But do we really believe that? Does extending our life trump all other valued ends?

All of us, including those who avow that human life is of infinite value, knowingly do certain things that prima facie reduce the portion of the future we’re likely to survive long enough to experience.

Everyone exposes themselves to an increased risk of death in order to satisfy other preferences they hold: risky sports, smoking, drinking alcohol, travelling by car, crossing the street, biking, going swimming, giving birth, eating food that hasn’t been pre-liquified to minimise the chance of choking; the list goes on.

Clearly most people do not place infinite value on extending their own lives. If they did, their lives would look very different.

In the brilliant little book The Machinery of Freedom, in a chapter entitled I Don’t Need Nothing, David Friedman explains the troubles we get into by entertaining the idea that life is infinitely valuable:

additional medical care continues to bring improved health up to a very high level of medical expenditure, probably up to the point where medicine would absorb the entire national income. Does that mean that we should satisfy our ‘need’ for medical care by having everyone in the country become a doctor, save those absolutely needed for the production of food and shelter? Obviously not. Such a society would be no more attractive than the ‘life’ of the man who really regarded his life as infinitely valuable.

This all gets us to the realisation that there’s no justification for treating life-extending goods and services as though they are qualitatively different to non-life-extending goods and services but virtue of their ability to extend life. Extending life is just one consideration among many that we (subconsciously) weigh against one another when choosing a course of action.

We all value extending human life to different degrees, and none of us assigns infinite value to this goal.

The most expensive life-support machine ever built

Imagine an old man, tired of life. He wants to die. Imagine also that at a cost of many thousands of dollars, a machine could be assembled and operated that would prolong his life. To me it feels grotesque, or at best misleading, to say that he needs this life support machine. I hope that your intuition agrees with mine on this: when considering conflicting goals related to the continuation of this person’s life, the goals of the old man himself must have priority.

It’s possible that the phrase ‘the old man needs the machine’ could be intended to communicate ‘without the machine the man will die’. The title of this article could be objected to on the grounds that human needs is harmless shorthand. ‘Bob needs food’ is just a quicker way of saying ‘Bob needs food if his goal is to extend his life’. But thinking clearly about such matters is already hard work. Do we really want to make contemplating important subjects even more difficult by using phrases that suggest dichotomies where none exist? By using this human needs shorthand we make the mistake of reification more likely, we risk fostering the belief that an unqualified need is something that can exist in reality.

Human needs is just shorthand, what’s the harm?

Friedman explains:

The idea of ‘need’ is dangerous because it strikes at the heart of the practical argument for freedom. That argument depends on recognizing that each person is best qualified to choose for himself which among a multitude of possible lives is best for him. If many of those choices involve ‘needs’, things of infinite value to one person which can be best determined by someone else, what is the use of freedom? If I disagree with the expert about my ‘needs’, I make, not a value judgement, but a mistake.

An alleged need, something that must be provided to the needer whether they want it or not, can be employed as a justification for state intervention, and for the expansion of state power. The existence of a bunch of mere human wants doesn’t open that same door to power.

But wants sounds unimportant

There might be a concern that when we’re talking about desires for goods that would prevent imminent death, wants sounds too trivial. I think that in philosophically rigorous contexts that’s just a bullet we need to bite. If necessary we can qualify wants as primary wants, intensely felt wants, longings or yearnings. The important thing is to stop implying the existence of a separate category of unconditional needs.

If we agree that human needs are more properly considered wants, can there be any justification for maintaining that a starving person’s desperate desire for food is somehow qualitatively different from a wealthy person’s casual desire to visit the new bar in town? I don’t think so. To insist that it is doesn’t tap any additional explanatory power and violates the principle of parsimony. All matters of human desire – including the desire to extend life – can be accurately expressed in terms of subjective wants of differing strengths.

Keeping this homology in mind we can appreciate the potential chasm between the intensity of any two wants in the world. Perhaps seeing things in this light can refresh our sensitivity to the suffering of the critically poor.

I believe the concept of human needs is dehumanising. It unjustifiably projects the goal to extend life on all persons, and falsely assumes that infinite value is attached to this goal. Positing categorical needs that exist divorced from individual values and goals brushes aside human difference, subjectivity, intentionality and reason–all of which exist even under the most desperate circumstances.

Against open borders – Libertarian considerations

Against open borders

Is an open border policy inherently more libertarian than a restrictive or exclusionary policy? I believe the answer is no, there are important libertarian considerations that count against open borders. I’ll do my best to explain why, and then mention a few relevant considerations and objections.

By open border policy, I mean a policy by which a state is permissive about who it allows to enter the territory it controls.

In my view, private property anarchism is the most thoroughgoing expression of libertarianism, so I’ll be talking about why an adherent of this view may coherently prefer a restrictive border policy over a permissive one, under statism. The rest of this article is written from the perspective of private property anarchism and assumes the reader shares this view.

A simple case

When the state bars a foreigner from entering the territory whose borders it police, and is prepared to use violence to enforce that exclusion, is the state initiating aggression against (violating the property rights of) that person? Not necessarily.

The public property within the state’s borders is more properly considered the joint property of the people the state has taxed to realise it. The people with the best ownership claim to this infrastructure are locals who have been subjected to the local state’s taxes in the past.

An inherent quality of being a legal immigrant (as opposed to a person who has just travelled somewhere, or a person with some other legal status) is the legal right to the routine use of public property in the host country. Under current conditions, immigrants to a country necessarily use the host country’s public property — e.g. roads, airports and public buildings.

Bearing all of the above in mind, imagine a taxed population unanimous in preferring that members of foreign population B not use their property — meaning the public property of that territory. In preventing members of population B from crossing the border, the state would plausibly be acting with the permission of those property owners to exclude members of population B from using the local public property.

In this hypothetical even those subjects who would prefer that the state did not exist, would prefer the state to deploy its ill-gotten gains to restrict access rather than allow unrestricted access. Under these circumstances it seems clear that anyone upholding property rights should advocate a restrictive border policy.

Does a more realistic polity justify open borders?

A more lifelike scenario is that some members of the taxed population are in favour of people from population B using their property, while others don’t want that to happen. In this case the best policy for the local state to impose, with respect to the sanctity of property, might be a restrictive one or a permissive one, depending on the preferences of the taxed population.

The libertarian argument from imperfect restitution

For the next part of the discussion here are the premises I’m assuming:

  • The local state extract taxes from its subjects, an act of aggression.
  • The local state owes restitution to the taxed.
  • The local state, qua state, does not necessarily owe any restitution to would-be immigrants.
  • While it exists, the local state, through its policies, is capable of providing partial restitution to the taxed.
  • Insofar as the state deploys expropriated resources in accordance with the preferences of its subjects, it provides partial restitution to them.
  • A greater degree of fulfilled restitution is preferable to a lesser degree.

Accepting the above premises, libertarians may still consistently prefer that the state adopt a restrictive border policy with respect to population B.

The judgement should hinge on an estimation of which border policy will ultimately maximise the amount of restitution ‘paid’ by the state, to the taxed population

In other words, the libertarian should be estimating which policy would cohere best with the summed preferences of the taxed population, with regard to how their property is used.

The point is that given a government theft, taking, or trespass, it is better, other things being equal, for the victims to receive restitution; and more restitution is better than a smaller, insufficient amount. But restitution need not be made only in dollars. It can be made by providing other value or benefits to the victims. One such benefit to me is the ability to use a nice, uncrowded, local pool for a cheap price.

Stephan Kinsella

It’s possible that the policy that would result in the highest degree of restitutive justice would be a policy that excluded members of population B from crossing the local state’s borders.

I believe that by this point we’ve established that libertarianism doesn’t require an advocacy of open borders in all cases.

Other considerations

In this article I’m using the phrase open borders as if it were synonymous with open access to public property. I feel justified in doing this because in almost all the conversations I’ve experienced on the subject, this is what people seem to have in mind.

If anyone out there is using the phrase open borders without also meaning open access to public property, this argument isn’t relevant to these people.

For instance if settlers arrive without setting foot on taxpayer-funded infrastructure and homesteaded some remote piece of land within the state’s borders that no one else had homesteaded previously, then this argument offers no reason to oppose them.

Open borders advocates like Bryan Caplan point out that the state is violating human rights when they prevent an immigrant from entering a country to stay on private property with the consent of the properties owner. This view is compatible with the argument presented above. It’s important to bear in mind that both open as well as restrictive border policy is likely to result in property rights violations.

A restrictive border policy may require a more powerful government to enforce it than would a more permissive policy. At least from a libertarian perspective, that additional power is likely to lead to future abuse and injustices that would otherwise not have obtained. Though this is a consequentialist objection and doesn’t speak against the validity of the rights-based ‘imperfect restitution’ argument.

Another complicating factor is that the local subjects taxed by the state aren’t usually it’s only victims. At least in cases where the state in question has been prosecuting war overseas, there are likely foreign victims who have at least as urgent a claim to restitution as locals do, and unlike the case of generations-old wrongs where the victims are lost to history, making the issue moot, it’s currently possible in principle to track these people down.

Trying to take account of the preferences of particular groups of foreign victims in any estimation of what policy would be most in accordance with the wishes of those owed restitution makes the accuracy of such an estimation even more doubtful. But for the purposes of this article it’s enough to notice that even taking the broader victim population into account doesn’t automatically deliver the result that open borders proponents want.

Biting the eugenics bullet

In objecting to this line of thinking writers have pointed out that being born is similar to immigrating to a country in many respects. In both cases a newcomer shows up, potentially without the blessing of the majority of taxpayers, and starts using ‘public’ property.

If the argument set out above is sound it seems that there is nothing inherent to private property anarchism that says a state-imposed eugenics policy (e.g. People matching a given profile are forbidden from having children) is necessarily less just than the ubiquitous ‘open-procreation’ policy we’re all used to today. As with border policy, the relative desirability of such a policy — at least by the lights of those who take property seriously — can’t be known a priori and should be weighed by attempting to assess the summed preferences of the taxed.

Criticism

The website OpenBorders.info has a page talking about ‘Collective Property Rights’ arguments against open borders, like this one, and summarises some responses. In my view none of the responses refutes this argument.

Credit

This post owes a good deal to Stephan Kinsella’s 2005 article A Simple Libertarian Argument Against Unrestricted Immigration and Open Borders.

For the arts – Against compulsion. Dear Patreon.

For the arts?

Dear Patreon.com, I’m a happy user of your service. Recently you sent an email urging me to join a campaign supporting arts funding. I won’t support For The Arts. I’ll explain why.

Arts funding is derived from taxation. Taxation depends on the state maintaining credible threats of violence against peaceful people who would otherwise not comply. If no such threats existed most would choose to safely withhold their funds. So taxation is extortion.

I appreciate that Patreon allows me to connect with people who value my work enough to voluntarily support it. On the other hand, more ‘support for The Arts’ means more funds extorted from the unwilling. The idea of anyone being coerced to support the creation of art works is repugnant to me. It’s a poor fit with the mindset I associate with your service.

Thanks for listening, and for your service that allows consenting supporters of my work to help me create things.

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Moral nihilism for libertarians

Moral nihilism

Moral nihilism means rejecting the notion that anything can be inherently moral (right) or immoral (wrong). I believe moral nihilism is justified because I’m not aware of any reason to suppose actions can have an intrinsic must not-be-done-ness or must-be-done-ness. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong and The Myth of Morality were the two most important works in persuading me about this.

Some people worry that if they become persuaded of moral nihilism it will undercut their ability to make moral arguments. Perhaps they even fear turning into people they don’t want to be. I hope to show that these fears are misplaced.

Moral nihilism: More plausible – Less comfortable?

I was happy to come across David D. Friedman’s Amazon.com review of Michael Huemer’s book, Ethical Intuitionism. Friedman and Huemer are authors of the two best books I’ve read on the topic of libertarianism. Here’s the part of the review most relevant to me.

[Huemer] does not provide an adequate response to the one challenge I am concerned with, the view that combines ethical nihilism with evolutionary psychology.> The claim of that view is that there are no normative facts, that nothing is good or bad and there is no moral reason to do or not do anything. It explains our moral beliefs […] by evolution — they were beliefs that increased the reproductive success of those who held them in the environment in which we evolved, and so got hard wired into their descendants.

That approach challenges intuitionism in two ways. First, it explains the evidence, my ethical intuitions, on the basis of facts of reality I already believe to be true. Once we have one explanation there is no need for another. Second, it raises the question of how, if there are moral facts, we could have acquired the ability to know them, since at least some of them would presumably have led us to modify our behavior in ways that reduced our reproductive success — make us less willing, for instance, to slaughter the men of a neighboring tribe and take their women.

Friedman closes the review by explaining that, despite its parsimony and explanatory power, he cannot accept moral nihilism.

Despite these problems, I have not yet abandoned my current moral position, in part because the alternative position fails to answer the questions I want answered, indeed implies that they are unanswerable, that there are no actual oughts. In part also, I fail to adopt the nihilist position because I am unable to believe it. That inability is psychological, not logical. I cannot actually believe that there is nothing wrong with torturing small children for the fun of it or murdering large numbers of innocent people, both conclusions that follow from the view that nothing at all is wrong or right.

I think I understand Friedman’s concerns. Here I’ll try to put them in their proper place.

Is there nothing wrong with torturing children for fun?

Speaking as a moral nihilist — I say that torturing children for fun is wrong. Not wrong in a cosmic, mind-independent way. To me wrong is shorthand for “it’s an idea that is offensive to my moral intuitions”. The name for this attitude to moral statements is Expressivism. I believe I experience the wrongness of the idea of child torture as intensely as they do. I used to be a moral realist so I have some basis for comparison.

Ditching moral realism doesn’t turn you into a bad person

If you’ve done away with moral realism doesn’t that mean you feel free to do things that are abhorrent?

Thankfully the answer is no. Even though moral facts don’t exist, in a healthy human, strong moral feelings and empathetic response do. If I could be sure I would ‘get away with it’ I still wouldn’t do the Bad Things that a psychopath would calmly contemplate. I would feel repulsed by the idea of doing them, and I am sure I would feel overwhelming guilt if I did carry them out. These strong disincentives have nothing to do with ideas of permission or forbiddance.

Moral realism doesn’t give an advantage in persuasion

Doesn’t denying moral facts undercut your ability or motivation to make moral arguments? I don’t believe it has to. While being a moral nihilist and a libertarian, I made the video George Ought to Help, which implicitly makes a moral argument against the state, specifically against the welfare state.

I’m motivated to make moral arguments because I believe they can bring about changes in the world that harmonise with my preferences. My preferences (which reflect my moral feelings) include increasing prosperity and reducing suffering. I’m convinced that propertarian anarchism is by far the most suitable path yet conceived of towards that end.

My moral arguments don’t rely on the assumption that moral facts exist. Instead, they appeal to a preference for coherence and consistency in moral judgments on the part of the people I’m making the argument to.

For instance, you and I feel that X is wrong (meaning that it offends our moral feelings). Y closely resembles X in ways A B and C. If you condemn X doesn’t it make sense to condemn Y too?

I encourage people to examine whether their judgments cohere with one another. In my view it’s fair to say that the moral judgments of most supporters of the state are incoherent, for instance.

Cut your losses

I believe that in efforts of persuasion, moral realism doesn’t help you. If a person doesn’t already feel that threatening violence against peaceful people is wrong (e.g. threatening to assault a friend to compel them to donate to a cause you consider worthy), then no amount of outraged brow beating about moral facts is going to change their mind. You should consider cutting your losses and ending the conversation.

A stronger foundation

If two moral realists disagree with one another, they get to a stalemate because (I claim) they rely on assumptions that are implausible for the same reasons. A moral nihilist can query these directly without threatening their own position. She might ask: How have you gained knowledge about moral facts? By what mechanism? Why treat this conviction as something other than merely a very strong feeling?

I encourage you not to be afraid of moral nihilism. It doesn’t make you a wicked person. It coheres better than moral realism with what we know about the world, and you sacrifice no persuasive power by accepting it.

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