The “No Man is an Island” Principle: A Critique of Economic Libertarianism.

I do believe in personal liberty. When it comes to personal matters that effect no one else, I am in John Stuart Mill’s camp, more or less. People should be allowed to do what they want to do as long as they infringe on nobody else’s rights. However, what most libertarians fail to realize, is that you cannot apply something inherently personal (like civil liberties) to something that is inherently social (like economies). This is the “no man is an island” principle. Economies are rooted in the interactions of many individuals on a daily basis. The wealth any one person accumulates is based on the good health of the economy, which again is inherently social. Every man who is rich today has only gotten there through the utilization of an army of workers and consumers, without which there would be no wealth in the first place. I ask any rich man who assumes he is entitled to every cent of his wealth to go to Antarctica, set up a business, and see what happens. I will tell you what would happen, he would freeze to death before he made a single penny in profit. Thus, if a man cannot make money alone, than why does that man assume he has an inalienable right to every cent of wealth he accumulates? Nobody would suggest we take all of his wealth from him because he did mix his Lockean labor in with society to produce his wealth. But the overall society is the context in which he has any possibility of accumulating wealth, and thus that society is entitled to a percentage of it. Notice that I have not even brought up the issues of public roads, schools, and police protection, which only strengthen my point since the wealthy individual in question has no doubt utilized and benefited from these social institutions at some point. If someone does not like this society and wishes to create their own or to be free from the obligations, privileges and responsibilities that come with living in this society, then by all means, leave the country. But I believe a defense of a progressive taxation system, as well as a social safety net, can be based on the sort of argument I have asserted here.

There is another, utilitarian, aspect to this argument as well. I believe that not only do the worse-off benefit from progressive taxation and a strong safety net, but so do the best-off. Ideally, the progressive taxation system and the social safety net create a society in which all individuals are healthy, educated, comfortable and safe. This creates a context in which even the best-off are better off. There is no doubt that poverty and crime go hand in hand. There is no doubt that sickness and despair go hand in hand. We do not want a society where every man is left to fend for himself in an unfettered capitalist dystopia, because even the wealthiest are put in danger, cannot find competent labor, and are put at risk by public health crises.

To conclude, not only do I think that no man is entitled to every cent of his wealth based on the “no man is an island” concept, but I also think that a progressive tax system and a social safety net are important for everyone in society, regardless of their socio-economic status. We depend on each other for everything in life and human beings are intrinsically social by nature. I think these arguments can be used, effectively, to counter the ideology of capitalists, minimal statists and economic libertarians.

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Philosophical Anarchism: Self Autonomy vs. State Authority

To be a human being in our modern civilized context is to exist in relation to authority; to a state. Indeed, most of human history has been defined by hierarchical relations between people. For thousands of years, the legitimacy of authority and hierarchy have scarcely been questioned. There may have always been someone in any given society who has questioned such concepts, but for the most part gods and kings have exerted their dominance over others. Only since The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries has authority, whether celestial or terrestrial, been systematically questioned. However, even to this day we struggle with the legitimacy of authority, the concept of personal liberty, and the conflict between the two.

Anarchy, proposed and advocated by many people throughout modern history, is seen as a possible solution to the problem of authority. Louis Pojam, in his paper The Justification for Government, distinguishes between two forms of anarchy: positive and negative. The former is a belief that human nature is inherently good and a utopia can exist on Earth if only we can be free from the chains of the state. The latter, more sober in its approach, is advocated by Robert Paul Wolff, and asserts that the issue of the state can be boiled down to the conflict between state authority and personal autonomy. Wolff believes the two are inherently in opposition and favors autonomy. State authority, according to Wolff, is the right to rule or command. It is obvious that most people do, indeed, concede to state authority. They do it for a myriad of reasons, but mainly because it’s just normal to do so. We were born into this world under the command of the state, our parents obeyed the state, and we just pick up where they left off. Most people never sit down and criticize this assumption, unfortunately, and so the state lives on exerting its authority. Personal autonomy, on the other hand, consists not in merely choosing how to act (being responsible for your own actions) but in taking responsibility for your actions. Which , according to Wolff, consists in “gaining knowledge, reflecting on motives, predicting outcomes, criticizing principles, and so forth”. By acting in such a way the responsible man comes to be autonomous; to be sovereign over himself. I, personally, appreciate this distinction and I think Wolff does an impressive job with defining the two concepts.

Wolff also discusses the “paradox of man’s condition”, which is the fact that man’s increasingly clear understanding that he is own master runs parallel with an increasingly complex, technological and bureaucratic state. This is an interesting as well as an insightful claim. Indeed, politics does seem to be so complex that even an intelligent, aware, and politically motivated person has a very hard time keeping up on all of the issues of the day. It is impossible for any one person to grasp our relatively new and ever-changing global political situation. In my opinion, this is cultural evolution, speeding up exponentially, for both the individual and the collective. Neither the state nor the individual has any hope of slowing this process down, let alone stopping it. I do not know where this process will take us, but one thing seems plausible to me: The more people become aware of their own ability to be their own master, the more appealing anarchy will look. I am going to step out on a limb and suggest that all forms of human socio-economic liberation movements (LGBT, women’s rights, civil rights, worker’s rights, etc.) will eventually culminate in the realization that the individual needs to liberated from authority, in all of its forms. I do not think that will happen in our lifetime and I do not think most people can handle that sort of radical freedom at this point. But in 500-1,000 years, if our species is still around, I think anarchy will be the only form of social organization that will suit our intelligence and morality. The push from kings to elected representatives is a push towards human liberation and there is no reason to believe that that progress will stop at parliaments and presidents.

The notion of autonomy that Wolff asserts has been critiqued, notably by G. Carl Cohen. Cohen argues that autonomy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for morality. After all, an autonomous actor may simply be wrong about what he feels the right thing to do is. In essence, there is an extra layer of morality that needs to be applied to autonomy. Autonomy has to coincide with good ethics, and nothing about autonomy alone encompasses that intrinsically. I believe that Cohen has a great point, and it does help clean up Wolff’s notion conceptually. However, I think Wolff would acknowledge the legitimacy of Cohen’s critique and easily incorporate it into his concept. I think it is implicit in Wolff’s argument that good ethical decisions are to be favored, it’s just that Wolff is focusing on defining the concept of autonomy and doesn’t really discuss that aspect of it. But much like Aristotle, it is implied that by gaining knowledge, being reflective, etc. good moral conduct rises to the top. Of course that may not always be the case, but it is obviously to be preferred.

The conflict between the authority of the state and the right for every man and woman to be autonomous consists in their definitions. As Wolff claims, the former is defined by a right to rule and the latter by a refusal to be ruled, making the two mutually exclusive. In my opinion, although Wolff makes a compelling argument and I feel a surge of anarchic rebellion in my gut whenever I read him, I do not think we need to define the two concepts in a way that necessitates their mutual exclusivity. A proper state, which very well may never have existed thus far in history, would respect the autonomy of individuals while maintaining a decent society in which everyone has the equal opportunity to flourish. An attempt at this type of state was clearly made by the founding fathers of America, although, based on the contradictions of slavery, classism and sexism of the time, it was never truly implemented, in my opinion.

Wolff’s anarchism has been criticized by many people, including social contract theorists, who make various claims about the legitimacy of a state and its theoretical ability to not only coincide with personal liberty, but to actually create a context in which such liberty can flourish. For Hobbes, it was necessary to avoid a “nasty, brutish, and short” existence, and a social contract which established a state was a way to avoid such unappealing circumstances. In fact, people prefer to establish such a state in order to preserve their natural rights. The no-so-implicit claim made by Locke, Hobbes, and the other social contract theorists is that anarchism is exactly what people don’t want. However, there are problems, which anarchists and their ilk gleefully point out, and high on that list of issues is the problem of consent. I, Brett Anderson, was simply born in America and had no say in the matter of who governed me. I never signed a document conceding to state authority, so what right does the state have to assume my consent? Well, according to the social contract theorists, the fact that I do not leave this country is indicative of my tacit consent. From Socrates to Locke, the point is made that I am free to leave at any time. But, as David Hume has pointed out, this is not truly feasible for most people, and I would argue it has inherent class restraints. It costs money to fly, to buy new property in a new place, to find work, etc., not to mention the emotional and social ties that I would sever by leaving my community of family and friends. Thus, the problem of consent is a sticking point for social contract theorists, and the reply from the anarchist is loud and clear: abolish the state and the problem goes away. I am not convinced that the problem disappears entirely, but that is a discussion for another time.

Another critique to Wolff’s anarchism comes from a paper entitled “Ethics and Sovereignty” by Blizek and, one of my personal favorite philosophers, Rory Conces . They argue that freedom and autonomy are not necessarily diminished by the state. In fact, the state can actually provide a form of security that could very well be lacking in an anarchist society. I have a daughter, and I find the fact that the police and ambulance are always 10-15 minutes away quite reassuring and comforting. Anarchy, although valid in some respects, cannot always guarantee the safety and security of its people. How would an anarchist society defend itself from a non-anarchic state the size of China or Russia, or from the blind aggression of states like Iran or North Korea? Also, how would an anarchist society protect me from intruders and aggressors in my home or on the streets? Would every man, woman and child be responsible for their own security or would anarcho-capitalist security firms have to be paid to ensure security? Both of those alternatives are horrifying to me. On this point, Locke, Hobbes, Blizek and Conces have a strong point.

Pleasure and Pain as Relational States

At first, the claim is an obvious one. Pleasure and pain are two sides of the same coin. We would not have the word “pleasure” unless there was some degree of displeasure, or at least a threat of displeasure, to compare it to. In the same way that we would not have a word for day, if there were no night. They are relational states. If everything were pleasurable, all of the time, we would not call it pleasure, it would be the “neutral” state of normalcy. It is only by means of our pain, displeasure and suffering that we can possibly value pleasure, whether bestial or intellectual, in any coherent way.
The implication of this is stark, and possibly obvious; pain and suffering is necessary in life. Although much of our personal and collective energy is dedicated to the utopian goal of eventually eradicating pain and suffering in the world, I would argue that not only is that impossible (death alone provides enough suffering and pain, and that will never be eradicated. We may prolong life indefinitely, but the universe will eventually die, according to modern physics, and thus death can never be eternally avoided) but it is also undesirable.
Leibniz, the famous philosopher and mathematician who co-discovered calculus with Newton and believed in a theistic God, made a famous statement in philosophy when he asserted that “this is the best of all possible worlds”. Voltaire, the French intellectual and polemic of the 18th century, blasted Leibniz in his short philosophical novella Candide. After all, with all of the suffering and depravity in the world, how could one utter such a phrase? But I do not think Voltaire gave Leibniz’s utterance the respect it deserved. Leibniz felt the truth of pleasure and pain as relational states, and he may very well have been correct in his analysis.
When contemplating these concepts, one cannot help but ponder the classical notion of theistic heaven. The claims made on heaven’s behalf, are that it is a place where no pain or suffering exist, it is eternal bliss. God has managed to pry one side of the coin off completely and left only a one sided coin; an oxymoron and a paradox, to be sure, but if anyone can manage such a feat, it would be the big guy himself. But what is the value in such a place? Without pleasures contrasting element, we run into the problem of pleasure being the neutral state, and thus losing its essential and elevated position. However, a clever theist could strike back with an interesting point. The point the theist could assert is this: the memory of the pain we suffered during life will be sufficient for maintaining the eternal state of bilss that heaven offers. We could remember our bygone pain, and thus the eternal pleasures of heaven would never lose their sweetness and sublimity. But surely as the eons go on, and memories fade, we will come to a point when those memories do not hold the acuity they once did. The obvious retort is that in heaven, the memory and time itself are structured differently, so we would not experience time in a linear fashion, and even if we did, God could maintain our memories for the purpose of stabilizing the integrity of the pleasure we feel in heaven. Fair enough say I!
There is another interesting point about God, that may contrast with my own agnostic atheism, but I am nothing if I am not fair. A main critique wielded by atheists since Epicurus came up with the formal problem of evil, is that if an all-loving God does exist, why is there so much suffering in the world? Well, if pleasure and pain are relational states as I have argued, then in order for life to be beautiful, deep, pleasurable, and awe-inspiring, there has to be cancer, rape, genocide, depression and death. Also, if heaven exists, an all loving, rational God might very well create an imperfect world with the knowledge that eternal bliss in heaven will be consolation enough for any imaginable pain inflicted on our terrestrial, corporeal selves. This is an argument I never hear from theist, but they may be wise to pack this conceptual/rhetorical tool in their arsenal for debates with the heathens, such as myself. Without doubt, this is no knock-down argument, but it could be interesting to throw into a debate.
Of course, nothing ground breaking and deeply insightful has been said in this post, but it an interesting concept to ponder, and I wanted to flesh out some of these ideas on a blog. To fulfill one’s appetite is surely a pleasure, and in that vein, consider this food for thought!