Murder most foul

Don Blankenship, “freedom of contract,” “small government,” and 29 dead miners.

Not as a legal matter, of course.

I doubt anyone will face any criminal liability at all for the deaths of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch mine, owned by Massey Energy and its dictatorial CEO, Don Blankenship. (Blankenship, if you’ll recall, spent more than $3 million of his own money to defeat a West Virginia Supreme Court justice who was expected to rule against his firm in a $50 million case, by accusing the justice of sympathizing with child molesters.) In the unlikely event someone at Massey is convicted of bribing mine-safety officials, it certainly won’t be Blankenship: no doubt he kept himself well insulated.

But at a Congressional hearing today, miners from Upper Big Branch testified that it was Massey policy to cover up mine safety violations and to fire workers who pointed them out. Of course, they couldn’t complain to their union: Blankenship had defeated all organizing attempts by the simple tactic of promising to shut down any mine where the workers voted to exercise their legal right – internationally recognized as a human right – to bargain collectively.

Last year Blankenship earned – or at least was paid – $17.8 million, which was somewhat more than the $12 million Massey had to pay in fines for mine-safety violations. That works out to more than $600,000 for each of the men who were killed due to the illegal practices of the company he runs. Here in Los Angeles, hit-men work for less, but no doubt the compensation committee of the Massey Energy board was told by their compensation consultant that the kind of unaccountable homicide Blankenship practices requires special skills and therefore justifies additional pay.

Since Blankenship is surely above the law, there’s no real point in getting mad at him. Yes, he’s the sort of person who makes you want to believe in Hell, but wishing won’t make it so. Of course, every politician who has ever touched his blood money ought to be permanently ostracized, but that won’t happen either: they won’t even get any nasty questions from the press. After all, it’s not as if they’d listened to sermons or something truly horrible like that.

Still, there’s a larger point to make. According to good libertarian doctrine, every single one of Blankenship’s actions is fully justified. He’s entitled – indeed, morally required – on behalf of his shareholders to run mines at whatever safety (or hazard) level maximizes profits. Any miner who doesn’t like it is perfectly free to seek employment elsewhere. The Mine Safety and Health Administration is a completely illegitimate interference with freedom of contract. Firing workers who report safety problems is fully covered by the doctrine of “employment at will,” under which a worker can be fired “for good cause, for no cause, or for cause morally wrong.” Just as they are free to quit, their employer is free to fire them. That’s “freedom of contract.” By resisting unionization, Blankenship has kept his workers free from depredations of the evil union bosses, and any attempt to avoid his thuggish threats to throw all the miners out of work reflects contempt for the “secret ballot.”

In a world where the Democratic Party hadn’t misplaced its brass knuckles, or in which there existed truly liberal mass media outlets – in the sense that Fox News is a self-consciously right-wing media outlet – Don Blankenship would be Acornized. He would become the poster child for what happens when “small-government” fantasies are allowed to intrude upon reality. Every Republican office-seeker would be forced either to defend the deaths of those 29 miners or to distance himself from the anti-regulation, anti-union, “drill baby drill” policies that made those deaths, and the BP oil spill, statistically inevitable.

But that isn’t the world we live in.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

34 thoughts on “Murder most foul”

  1. Acornized? Crap, now we've got to give handouts to energy barons too? Or do you mean instead that you'll never have a bad word to say about Blankenship?

    I recall years and years of your blaming miners' deaths on the president. What's changed? What's now so complicated about mining regulation that you can't blame the president for dead miners? Elections have consequences, some of them deadly to Mark's understanding of government. I mean, we're 16 months into the Obama administration, so isn't it time for it (and you) to own the consequences of its maladministration?

    Reading this quote from the article, I couldn't help but think, where's the outrage at the incompetence of the Obama administration: "I also put a lot of fault with MSHA for a mine having this many ventilation problems and not being shut down and being corrected — they might have corrected it at the time, but apparently that correction didn't work or we wouldn't be here today." How many miners will we lose before the Obama administration gets its act together?

  2. I offer no comment on Massey Coal or Don L. Blankenship. However, I do know something about the election battle between Warren McGraw and Brent Benjamin. It is a sad fact that Warren McGraw did indeed vote to let a serial child molester out of jail. Here is what one of Warren McGraw's supporters says.

    http://davelieber.org/the-story-of-warren-mcgraw-

    "McGraw did not write the opinion in the case. But he was part of the majority that sent the case involving the molester back down to a lower court for further action. Yes, serious judicial mistakes were made. But everyone in public life makes a mistake of some type. That’s part of public life. McGraw’s career in West Virginia spanned decades. But he lost that election."

    The criminal in question is now an adult and his name, Tony Arbaugh has become well known (in West Virginia). Since Warren McGraw voted to release him, Tony Arbaugh has been arrested for felony drug charge and misdemeanor weapons and battery charges. (http://wvnstv.com/story.cfm?func=viewstory&storyid=1044). He has also been arrested for failure to appear in court (http://wtrf.com/story.cfm?func=viewstory&storyid=1656). He has been convicted of transporting controlled substances onto the grounds of a jail.

    As of 2009, Tony was incarcerated in the Mt. Olive Correctional Complex.

  3. Judges don't "vote" for policy outcomes, or at least they're not supposed to. They make rulings according to the law. I haven't studied that case, but there are lots of good reasons for a higher court to remand a case to a lower court. The fact that the defendant whose procedural rights McGraw joined in upholding later committed crimes is neither here nor there.

  4. "Judges don’t “vote” for policy outcomes, or at least they’re not supposed to. They make rulings according to the law."

    Someone might want to tell Justice Kennedy on the Supreme Court about this. He has been inventing a US moral consensus against the death penalty for 16-17 year old murderers and another surprising US moral consensus against life without parole for 16-17 year olds. Since both overturned hundreds of years of precedent and neither have anything close to US moral consensus, it sounds a lot like a policy outcome vote…

  5. The predatory, vile behavior of Blankenship and Massey Energy seems particularly shocking because over the past century fewer and fewer large corporations have been able to get away with it. But of course, in the 19th century, this sort of thing was common in many industries across the US and Europe.

    Mark correctly notes that if the "libertarian fringe" here in the US were somehow able to implement their ideology, businesses that avoid despoiling the environment and abusing their workers would lose out to those with no such scruples. There is a reason that our great-grandparents in the Progressive era acted to rein in the previous century's out-of-control industries by imposing all the regulations we now apparently take for granted.

  6. One of the things I talk about when I teach labor economics or collective bargaining is that one way to read the history of the 20th century, with respect to labor markets and labor law, is as a progressive set of restrictions on the employment-at-will doctrine. Spelling out what employment at will means, as Mark does, results in very little support for employment-at-will. I agree that a vigorous effort at making the case that employment-at-will, in the strict sense, is unconsionable, is something we should be doing.

  7. Mark Kleiman channels Eric Holder. Bad idea. Don't write things like

    "I haven’t studied that case"

    McGraw didn't vote to remand the case to a lower court. He voted to give Tony Arbaugh probation.

    This wasn't a "procedural rights" case. It was a judgment call.

    What a criminal does after they are released is a legitimate issue. Mike Huckabee played some role in getting Wayne DuMond out of jail. DuMond went on to rape and murder two women. It was a legitimate issue in the 2008 campaign. It was also a legitimate issue when in 1988 Al Gore attacked Mike Dukakis over the Massachusetts furlough program for murderers.

  8. Mark says: "According to good libertarian doctrine, every single one of Blankenship’s actions is fully justified. He’s entitled – indeed, morally required – on behalf of his shareholders to run mines at whatever safety (or hazard) level maximizes profits."

    Wow. There's a whole lot of demonization of libertarian thought on this blog, but a noticeable lack of links (or cites) to evidence. There's nothing wrong with critiquing libertarianism but Mark is reducing all of libertarianism to the crudest possible straw man — in this post, the straw man is a bizarrely crude utilitarianism. That's neither a good basis for policy analysis nor particularly "reality-based."

    Perhaps Mark or someone who agrees with him could cite or link to a source supporting his claim that "libertarian doctrine" makes it "morally required" for business owners to run their businesses "at whatever safety (or hazard) level maximizes profits."

    Anyone?

  9. Donald Coffin said, "I agree that a vigorous effort at making the case that employment-at-will, in the strict sense, is unconsionable, is something we should be doing."

    But we don't have strict employment at will in this country. There are lots of laws limiting the employer's decision to fire an employee. So what further restriction on termination decisions do you propose?

  10. It needs to be pointed out that we really no longer have any voices in the mainstream mass media who have "moral authority." No mainstream media heroes.

  11. So what further restriction on termination decisions do you propose?

    How about one saying that you can't fire someone for working to prevent the company from violating the law?

  12. J. Michael Neal:

    Well, there are a number of whistleblower protections attached to various laws, but they certainly would not protect employees in every situation. In some states, there are also court-created public policy protections for employees in some situations (e.g., testifying truthfully against their employer). As phrased, however, your suggestion ("you can’t fire someone for working to prevent the company from violating the law") is problematic. What does it means to "work to prevent" the company from breaking the law? Are you protecting only informing the authorities or is "direct action" protected too? Since there are so many laws that a lot of people think that everybody is a criminal now, (http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/05/18/alexander.who.am.i/index.html), should a super-whistleblower law limit the number or kind of laws it promotes/protects? Also, it's often very hard to known when some laws are being broken — Is certain information about a company "material"? Did the company act with "utmost good faith"? Did the company violate someone else's copyright or was it fair use?

    My point is merely that writing such a law would be hard and the burden on the employers and the employees, who would likely have to litigate about all these issues, may be significant.

    How about instead if we had a law that mandated severance pay instead: zero severance for the first three months of employment, two weeks severance after three months, and, after a year, one month severance for each full year of employment, up to a limit, say 18 months. The employer gets to fire whoever it wants, but there is a strong incentive not to do so for trivial reasons, and the whole system is objectively clear (you just need to know the hiring and termination dates to calculate what the employee is owed).

  13. The author's belief about libertarianism is wrong. To quote him:

    > Still, there’s a larger point to make. According to good libertarian doctrine, every single one of Blankenship’s actions

    > is fully justified. He’s entitled – indeed, morally required – on behalf of his shareholders to run mines at whatever

    > safety (or hazard) level maximizes profits. Any miner who doesn’t like it is perfectly free to seek employment elsewhere.

    > The Mine Safety and Health Administration is a completely illegitimate interference with freedom of contract. Firing workers

    > who report safety problems is fully covered by the doctrine of “employment at will,” under which a worker can be fired “for good

    > cause, for no cause, or for cause morally wrong.” Just as they are free to quit, their employer is free to fire them. That’s

    > “freedom of contract.”

    First, the mine-owner himself is morally obligated to provide for the safety of his workers. Whether or not the government may enforce this, it remains that he has a moral duty to ensure his workers' safety. It is NOT true that he must maximize profits regardless of safety. That is simple a bald-faced falsehood, without the slightest resemblance of a semblance of an imitation of an echo of libertarianism.

    So, perhaps the government can, or perhaps it cannot, enforce safety. Perhaps only G-d can hold the mine-owner accountable. Perhaps he has a moral duty which no one can enforce. At least that much is true.

    But I do not see a problem with OSHA-type standards of basic safety. I do not feel libertarianism is opposed to such basics.

    According to the concept of contract, perhaps indeed one could sign a contract with an employer and waive his right to safety, and it would be all well and good, contract-wise. But John Locke – perhaps the most important source for a libertarian – says it is a crime to commit suicide, and Samuel Adams says (The Rights of the Colonists), "In short, it is the greatest absurdity to suppose it in the power of one, or any number of men, at the entering into society, to renounce their essential natural rights, or the means of preserving those rights; when the grand end of civil government, from the very nature of its institution, is for the support, protection, and defence of those very rights; the principal of which, as is before observed, are Life, Liberty, and Property. If men, through fear, fraud, or mistake, should in terms renounce or give up any essential natural right, the eternal law of reason and the grand end of society would absolutely vacate such renunciation. The right to freedom being the gift of God Almighty, it is not in the power of man to alienate this gift and voluntarily become a slave."

    Thus, both John Locke and Samuel Adams contradict the claims made by our author about libertarianism. I trust Locke and Adams more than the present author.

  14. When TV crews were in Montcoal to cover the disaster, while bodies were still being taken out of the ground, townspeople with relatives who worked for Massey — which is to say, most of them — were afraid to be seen talking to the reporters. Those who did talk were anxious not to betray any reaction that might cause an uncle or brother-in-law to lose his livelihood. That's subjection. Libertarians may not recognize that, but Don Blankenship assuredly does. And so does the market, which still knows the difference between master & servant, even if its apologists don't.

  15. Explain, please, why giving you no choice about working for me is a heinous evil, while giving me no choice about you working for me is a manifest good. Seems to me they're about the same in terms of violating freedom of association.

  16. Now that corporate 'persons' have unlimited free — or should I say 'costly' — speech rights, maybe we should explore new ideas in the area criminal penalties for these 'persons'. For example, why not have a corporate 'death penalty' in which all of the common stock is confiscated from the owners and then auctioned to new owners after the board and top executives have been fired? This seems like a fitting punishment for corporations like BP which cut corners on safety based on a cold-blooded calculation that they can get away without paying for more than a trifling amount of the damage done by an accident.

    We need a latter-day Swift to do justice to the 'capitalism without consequences' that big business has engineered for itself.

  17. Seth – that's a good impulse, but I prefer dissolution for corporations that commit murder. Look at what we did with the tobacco companies who absolutely committed first-degree murders for financial gain.

    Were they dissolved? Of course not! This is America. They just got fined, and are still doing the same things, and are now probably murdering lots of foreigners by not telling them the stuff is addictive and causes cancer.

    Note: I am not against the sale of tobacco, just the lying-about-it part. I am against the drug war itself.

    Michael Makovi: are you sure you are a mainstream libertarian? You sound so much more reasonable than most of them!!! (I would be happy if you *were* the norm…) But since when do libertarians recognize moral obligations? None of the rest of you ever talk about them. Where does that come from? What is it based on?

    Brennan: I don't think a severance plan is adequate to prevent safety violations or protect the right to unionize. (It may be a good idea in other contexts.) Unless you made it a lot more expensive!!!

    The problem here is, as a society, how do we deter corporate negligence/violence upon workers? (When it comes to individual violence, of course, it's "throw away the key.") If the math doesn't work out as a deterrence, the corporation will not act — period. And that is straight from any classical or neo-con (I forget which) economic theory you can point at. (Which I gather is what most libertarians today worship? Or is there a silent libertarian majority out there that believes in something else? Would *love* to hear about it if so.)

    It's basic that shareholders want as much money as possible. So if Mark was wrong, *how* was he wrong???

  18. NCG said "But since when do libertarians recognize moral obligations?" Here's a hint – if you find that you believe that a people whose preferred political theory you disagree with can be generally characterized as not recognizing moral obligations, then you gone beyond demonizing your opponents into a completely reality-free zone.

    NCG also said "Seth – that’s a good impulse, but I prefer dissolution for corporations that commit murder." Really? So if a doctor at the Mayo Clinic causes a patient to die through malpractice, you would shut down and dissolve the entire Mayo Clinic? Do you also prefer dissolution if the corporate person in question is a town or city or public utility? What if the corporate "murderer" is a union? a state? the federal government?

  19. "Now that corporate ‘persons’ have unlimited free — or should I say ‘costly’ — speech rights, maybe we should explore new ideas in the area criminal penalties for these ‘persons’. For example, why not have a corporate ‘death penalty’ in which all of the common stock is confiscated from the owners and then auctioned to new owners after the board and top executives have been fired? This seems like a fitting punishment for corporations like BP which cut corners on safety based on a cold-blooded calculation that they can get away without paying for more than a trifling amount of the damage done by an accident."

    We going to implement the same penalty scheme for unions? It's not as though it's unheard of for them to commit criminal acts, even if they do have an exemption from RICO under US v Enmons. I saw some of it myself during the Detroit newspaper strike. Seems only fair.

    Oh, and it's not so much corporations having unlimited speech rights, as government NOT having censorship rights…

  20. Brennan: I would love to hear more about libertarians' ideas about moral obligations. That's why I asked. My impression of most of them — and it may of course be false — is that they are usually obsessed with their own personal liberty (not that that is bad in itself) and with low taxes and conservative economic philosophy. Admittedly, none of those things is necessarily bad in itself, but I just don't see from where "moral obligations" might spring for such a person.

    So if someone wants to answer my question, I'm all ears!!

  21. As for dissolution, it would of course be only for the most serious crimes. Like deliberate, planned murders of people for financial gain such as committed by tobacco companies. We sure execute humans for less. (In my mind, killing for money is much worse than most of the other reasons people do it. Arguably of course, to a murder victim it might not matter…)

    And sure, if you find a union that did that, go ahead and dissolve. We can always make new ones, right?

  22. Needless to say, no one proposes to force Don Blankenship to hire workers if he doesn’t want any. It's a different matter, if he does want to hire some, to regulate the terms of the labor contract. The better analogy isn't with giving a worker no choice about working for someone, but w/ limiting the set of eligible alternatives, if he does decide to take work, to ones that conform to those same labor standards. This is the difference between enslaving someone & denying him the freedom to sell himself into indentured service.

    I know of no libertarian who, when the chips are down, really thinks that, e.g., if his wife's or mother's or daughter's boss demanded sexual submission as a condition of employment, it’d be a scandal tantamount to chattel slavery to prevent him from making good on the threat. It’s true that pari passu as employees are afforded freedom from this kind of depredation (& denied the freedom to be sexually harassed), he’s denied the freedom to associate only w/ those who submit or have no alternative to submitting, but most people accept this as an obvious instance of the boundedness of the freedom of association.

  23. NCG: I am hardly an expert on libertarians' ideas about moral obligations but it seems self-evident to me that libertarianism, which primarily addresses the appropriate limits on government powers, is not inconsistent with many moral belief systems, which primarily address the proper behavior of individuals. The only situation in which I can see that libertarianism would be wholly incompatible with a moral belief system would be if the moral beleif system declared that all government action was. by definition, moral. And I don't think anybody seriously holds that view.

    What is the incompatibility between libertarianism and the possibility of morality that you perceive?

  24. Brett:

    Sure unions should be accountable as well. Their structure is different, but one could apply the "dump all the elected officers and hold a new election" part of it even if there are no equity holders to expropriate. And certainly the flip-side of "free speech" is "limited government censorship". I'm very alarmed by big government threats on the civil liberties, military-industrial, and corporate-control of government fronts. But most of the most obnoxious things government does occur because of big corporate group think. I don't know of any weapon that might curb the power of big corporations if the broad public won't push government to counter big corporations. The corporate big shots understand this very well, hence their massive investment in propaganda and astro-turfing (eg Fox/Tea Party).

    NCG:

    I'm fishing for a severe penalty which would provide some real accountability. SOX places too much emphasis on the "cult of the CEO" by attempting to substitute an individual (or two) for the entire corporate person. Equity holders don't have much power in a big corporation, as a rule, but if there was a real risk of expropriation for criminal cause, that would create a strong motivation to find ways to mitigate it. (Of course this would mostly take the form of a many-billion dollar campaign to control every member of the judiciary everywhere in America.) On the other hand, the I'm not comfortable with the 'collective punishment' involved in dissolving a large going-concern. Doing so would penalize a lot of innocent bystanders who had no role in decision-making.

  25. Brennan: I think one of my issues with libertarianism, and with much of the right in general?, is this idea that "government" is in some meaningful way separate from us as individuals, when it's really just an imprecise aggregate of all of our decisions. In what way could one separate the way one votes from one's morality?* So from my point of view, if someone appears to vote based only on limiting "government power," it seems to me a very cramped way of looking at citizenship and being human. I guess if I were someone who thought government power was the most serious problem facing the country, it would look different to me.

    It reminds me of a guy I used to know who called himself an anarchist. He was an over six-foot-tall blonde guy. I asked him about his place in the family, and lo and behold (although it turned out he had issues with his mother, and thus, with all women)(*don't* get me started on proggy guys!), he'd been the oldest and had never experienced being bullied. So then his views made more sense. Of course someone like that would see no need for a civilizing force. I hope I don't take an overly starry-eyed view of government, but maybe I just have a better idea – from experience – of exactly where I would be without it.

    Of course all of us value our personal liberty, and that of others. If someone didn't at least have a libertarian *streak* in them, I'd think they were nuts.

    But this idea that the government is the main problem with society? I just don't agree. To me, the basic underlying premise of the libertarians I hear from – and I know there may be others – is that they would like to be left alone, now that they've acquired their own little pile, in large part as a result of the civil society and education they *inherited* and did not make themselves — and heaven forbid that *anything* should be asked of them by their fellow humans or by future generations not actually descended from them. So, I don't see that view as being particularly moral. Perhaps I misunderstand, though. Perhaps they compartmentalize "morality" into some other area of their lives?

    *Granted, voting is two days a year. If I were going to try to judge someone in some sort of global way – which I hope I wouldn't be dumb enough to try!! — (and I sincerely apologize if it sounds like I do that here! I am *only* talking about libertarians' political identity here — one I find mystifying and maddening!)(also, let me take this opportunity to apologize for my atrocious grammar and punctuation!), I'd be a lot more interested in how they treat the actual people they see every day. Their spouse, the guy who parks their car, that kind of stuff. But still, voting is a moral act, isn't it? It does have at least some significance to character.

    *Another thing I should mention is that I don't see myself as a particularly good person, just in case I sound really stuck up! I am good to my family and friends, and otherwise, I try not to do harm. For the most part, my guess is I don't make that much difference one way or the other. I also know conservatives who do a lot of charity work, so in that way they would be much ahead of me. I may think they're mostly crazy in many ways, but there can still be much to admire. Maybe libertarians invent lots of things (but we pay them for that). I don't know. It takes all kinds. I just don't want certain kinds to be *in charge*. (Oh yeah, and we also don't want to get me started on the DLC and the "New Democrats.")

    *Now, to go to a really crazy place, sometimes I wonder how we Americans look to the rest of the world. If I met an Iraqi who happened to be extremely angry at us, for example, what could I really say? That I was against the invasion? That I never voted for those rascals? Why should he care?

    And from a mining company perspective, I was really just wondering, where would an executive find a moral obligation to protect workers, from a libertarian perspective? He doesn't work for them. He works for the shareholders, right? All this world-view stuff is fun to talk about – when I'm not accidentally insulting people more than I meant to! – but it's so squishy. Whereas, a mine company is more concrete and we can turn it over a bit.

    Seth: it does seem as if shareholders don't have much direct power. But they could have sold their shares, couldn't they, if they objected to management decisions? Of course, in the tobacco context, arguably the shareholders didn't know about the crime and conspiracy. But they unknowingly profited from murder, and why should they not expect to lose money on the admittedly rare (I hope?) occasions when that happens? Hey, at least they're not dead. I think maybe we need more incentives for groups of people to keep an eye on what the leaders are doing, since I agree that these "great man" theories let the rest of us off the hook much too easily.

  26. "And from a mining company perspective, I was really just wondering, where would an executive find a moral obligation to protect workers, from a libertarian perspective?"

    Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a comprehensive moral theory. As such, it applies to government-like acts by private citizens, (Theft, kidnapping, murder…) but doesn't pretend to dictate what people should do beyond refraining from violating other people's rights. In this respect it's quite different from a theory like utilitarianism, which in principle might go so far as to tell you what flavor of breakfast cereal you should eat, if you had the knowledge and computational capacity to apply it in such detail. Libertarianism drastically underdetermines your actions.

    Libertarianism would tell the mining company not to aggress against the workers, and to fulfill any agreements it entered into with them. But it wouldn't tell the company what agreements it should enter into. That's above it's 'pay grade'.

  27. NCG said (here)

    > Michael Makovi: are you sure you are a mainstream libertarian?

    > You sound so much more reasonable than most of them!!!

    > (I would be happy if you *were* the norm…) But since when do

    > libertarians recognize moral obligations? None of the rest of you

    > ever talk about them. Where does that come from? What is it based

    > on?

    I'm not sure what "mainstream" is, but I'm pretty sure that I'm somewhere within the bounds of what might perhaps be called normative libertarianism, yes. Now, personally, I am an Orthodox Jew, so it is to be expected that some of my views on morality will differ from those of secular libertarians, but then again, my views ought to comport pretty well with Christian libertarians (in fact, much of my libertarianism comes from reading Calvinist and Reformed Christian political tracts from the Reformation and colonial America), so while I may be quite distinct from one large segment of libertarianism, then again, I'll be quite in accordance with another no less large segment of libertarianism.

    Now then, I think you hear so little from libertarians about moral obligations and duties simply because they're not part of the discussion. Whether your sense of morality comes from the church pulpit or from Boy Scouts or from some other source, in any case, your own personal moral obligations are not part of the discussion, when the discussion is what the government ought to do. For a libertarian, democracy means the social-contract of John Locke and the like, which means things like limited government, separation-of-powers and checks-and-balances, rule-of-law, and constitutionalism. The question is always on what the government is supposed to do. No one ever asks the libertarians what the individual is supposed to do, and so they never say. For a libertarian, government is a constituent of society, not its constitutive element. Society contains many elements, and the government is a very important element of society, but there are other elements as well, and each element has its own task. If, for example, it is the job of the church to collect charity and distribute it to the poor, then a libertarian will not bring up the subject of charity in his political discourse, because he intends only to talk about what the government is supposed to do, and anything not done by the government simply isn't part of the discussion. It doesn't mean it isn't important, but there are a lot of important things in life which are not political and which do not concern the government, and a libertarian cannot discuss them all all the time. He wants to stay on subject, on the government.

    Samuel Adams wrote a marvelous tract, "The Rights of the Colonists" (here), according to the philosophy of John Locke. Everything in Adams's tract evinces pure libertarianism, straight-and-simple. Now, the interesting thing is, Adams says nothing in this tract about personal obligations, and yet we know from elsewhere that Adams was a bona-fide Puritan, one of the most die-hard religious Christians of his age! So why did his "The Rights of the Colonists" spell out only the political and civil rights of the colonists? Because that was the subject! If you had asked Adams about your moral obligations and duties, he would have directed you to the local church, and let the minister there answer your question!

    What Brett Belmore says here is completely correct: libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a moral one. Libertarianism is essentially the philosophy of limited, constitutional government, nothing more. But you cannot live your entire life according to the Constitution, and you're not supposed to! The government, not people, is to obey the Constitution!

    I wish to illustrate everything I've said:

    According to Thomas Jefferson, "To take from one, because it is thought that his own industry and that of his fathers has acquired too much, in order to spare to others, who, or whose fathers, have not exercised equal industry and skill, is to violate arbitrarily the first principle of association, the guarantee to every one of a free exercise of his industry and the fruits acquired by it." And again, he says, "A wise and frugal government which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government." What Jefferson is saying, rather, is that the government has no authority to engage in redistribution of wealth. The basic reason is well explained in Cato's Letters, a series of British essays following John Locke: "The two great laws of human society, from whence all the rest derive their course and obligation, are those of equity and self-preservation: By the first all men are bound alike not to hurt one another; by the second all men have a right alike to defend themselves. … Government therefore can have no power, but such as men can give…no man can give to another what is none of his own … Nor has any man in the state of nature power…to take away the life of another, unless to defend his own, or what is as much his own, namely, his property. This power therefore, which no man has, no man can transfer to another. … Nor could any man in the state of nature have a right to violate the property of another…as long as he himself was not injured by that industry and those enjoyments. No man therefore could transfer to the magistrate that right which he had not himself. … No man in his senses was ever so wild as to give an unlimited power to another to take away his life, or the means of living… But if any man restrained himself from any part of his pleasures, or parted with any portion of his acquisitions, he did it with the honest purpose of enjoying the rest with greater security, and always in subservience to his own happiness, which no man will or can willingly and intentionally give away to any other whatsoever." In other words, the government is merely your proxy, and governments are instituted by men solely to protect their own property and rights. Men leave the state of nature and create a government only to protect themselves and their possessions. As such, government is a man-made institution possessing only those powers which men grant it. But no man can grant the government a power which he has not himself. The government is your proxy, your agent. I can grant the government a power only if I have that power myself; all its powers are only by delegation. This is all basic social-contract theory; nothing more, nothing less.

    So according to Thomas Jefferson, the government is forbidden to engage in redistribution of wealth. But a recent thoroughly-libertarian essay, "The Rise of Government and the Decline of Morality" by Dr. James A. Dorn (here) approving quotes Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, written roughly around the time of Jefferson: "When an American asks for the cooperation of his fellow citizens it is seldom refused, and I have often seen it afforded spontaneously and with great good will. . . . If some great and sudden calamity befalls a family, the purses of a thousand strangers are at once willingly opened, and small but numerous donations pour in to relieve their distress." Even though the government was not to engage in redistribution of wealth, private citizens felt perfectly to redistribute wealth from their own purses, and such was quite correct and proper! I quoted Cato's Letters above as saying, "No man therefore could transfer to the magistrate that right which he had not himself. … This power therefore, which no man has, no man can transfer to another." What Cato's Letters is saying is that since men can only delegate powers to the government which they themselves possess, therefore, no man can authorize the government to handle another man's money. But surely every man is entitled to dispurse his own money as he pleases.

    (The above is oversimplified. Libertarians do believe that some taxes are legitimate. For example, the Constitution says Congress can raise an army for the common defense, and libertarians would permit a tax to pay for this. What libertarians oppose is taxation to pay for things that they feel it is not the government's job to perform. Since they believe it is not the government's job to assist the poor, they oppose taxes that aim at that purpose. But to a libertarian's mind, since you can compel your nature to join the army in the case of invasion in order to provide for the common mutual defense, therefore, you can grant the government power to take your neighbor's money for the sake of raising an army.)

  28. EDIT: But to a libertarian’s mind, since you can compel your neighbor to join the army in the case of invasion in order to provide for the common mutual defense, therefore, you can grant the government power to take your neighbor’s money for the sake of raising an army.

  29. Crud, edit AGAIN, grrr: But to a libertarian’s mind, since you can compel your neighbor to join the army in the case of invasion in order to provide for the common mutual defense, therefore, you can grant the government power to take your neighbor’s money for the sake of raising an army.

  30. Michael, that was very interesting, thank you! I think there is a great deal of value in libertarian philosophy, certainly when one reads these eloquent thinkers. And I have a much better idea now of why I so seldom agree with any of them, if they truly believe that politics and government can, in any meaningful way, be separated from the rest of one's moral life. For me, limits on government are more of a tool we use to create a healthier and happier society, which *I* think was the point of forming a society/government, way back when, regardless of what words people used at the time. (I am definitely not an originalist/textualist, in case that surprises anyone.) And we fight so much because our ideas of how to do that are so different. But the limits as limits aren't something I find particularly exciting in the abstract.

    And if we quote the big guys like Jefferson, we should also remember the regular people, like the men with Washington getting ready to cross the Delaware, with holes in their shoes and the snow coming in and all that. Did they only fight oppressive taxation, or were they also fighting *for* something? Something more than just, "the government has to leave me alone now." Never having fought in a war myself, I can only say that all the writing about it that I've seen says people fight for their friends, not just themselves. And without them, of course, the Constitution wouldn't be. (Hey, all, Happy Memorial Day!)

    And the Constitution says a great deal more than just, "we will form an army, and our army can beat up your army." I do love the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights. In fact, people don't talk nearly enough about the Bill of Rights. We keep pushing people in other countries to have elections, but without a Bill of Rights first, it's not such a good idea, is it? I can completely see, for example, why a lot of Islamist types think we talk out of two sides of our mouths, since there is in fact a history of elections getting cancelled any time it looks like an Islamist might win! All over the place, in fact. We should really all sit down and have a long talk about that some time. I'm thinking all this killing isn't getting us anywhere.

    As for the mining context, my guess is, if libertarians are against all non-military redistribution of wealth, then they must be against all mine safety regulations, right?

Comments are closed.