Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Why Walter Block and Stephan Kinsella Sound Like Central Planners When They Talk About Debtor's Prison

Prof. Walter Block and Stephan Kinsella recently had a debate about voluntary slavery. Block argued in favor of it, Kinsella against. The debate is here.

Although by the end of the debate, I think Block ends up making the stronger points in favor of voluntary slavery, what I want to do is focus on the first 15 minutes of the debate where Kinsella brings up debtor's prison.

What I find fascinating about this part of the debate is what I see as one of the problems with the "natural rights" approach to libertarianism. Both Block and Kinsella assume that there is some kind of  natural rights resolution to the problem of debtor's prison. They are in other words thinking like central planners, like interventionists  They are thinking that their "natural rights" perspective on the resolution of a debt not paid back must be held for all debts not paid back, for all people in the ENTIRE WORLD!

The problem starts with Kinsella framing the problem in terms of a contract where a person fails to pay a debt back, with no further terms to the contract. Block accepts this framework, without objection,  and moves to call it theft when a debt isn't paid back and that therefore debtor's prison must not be ruled out. They then proceed to seemingly debate as though their discussion applies to all debt contracts.

But I would proceed with caution at this point. Who is to say that a contract can't stipulate, "I will give you X dollars and if you don't pay me back X dollars plus 10%, I will send you to prison for Z period." You then sign the contract. This takes the argument completely out of a "natural rights" debate and into the world of contracts between two people. (Note: It does get a little more complex, if no penalty is stipulated in the contract. I would argue some type of common law could be applied, with the understanding that contract stipulations override common law.)

But, neither Block nor Kinsella seem to consider the stipulation option with regard to debt, though Block does use the same basic contractual stipulation argument for voluntary slavery. They are both thinking, at the get go with regard to debt, from a natural rights perspective, as if there is some divine natural right that must be discovered. But, is it possible to think of a society that doesn't consider natural rights?

If a society exists, not based upon natural rights, but some form of initial designed private property rights (I'm not ruling out homesteading as a possible form of design, but not necessarily limiting it to that possibility), where private contracts are recognized and transactions between individuals are respected, then all these debates about how to interpret "natural rights" disappear. I would want to live in such a society, not because of some mystical, magical arguments about natural rights, but because a society based on respect of private property, private contracts and respect for the non-aggression principle is going to be a society that is going to A. provide me with a great degree of freedom. B. likely result in a society that has a very high standard of living.

Ludwig von Mises has taught us this. In Human Action, he wrote (p. 280):
The member of a contractual society is free because he serves others only in serving himself.
In  Socialism, he wrote (p. 361)
That everyone lives and wishes to live primarily for himself does not disturb social life but promotes it, for the higher fulfillment of the individual's life is possible only in and through society. 
There is no need to base a free, contractual society on supposed natural rights. The intelligent man seeking freedom and a high standard of living will seek out this kind of society that Mises writes of.

 If others want to live in another types society, I say let them go for it. If the Amish want to live based on different rules, then that's fine with me. If others want to live in a kibbutz, no problems from me.

Here is Mises in Planned Chaos writing along these lines (p.29):
It is a fact that men disagree in their value judgments. It is insolent to arrogate to oneself the right to overrule the plans of other people and to force them to submit to the plan of the planner.
What I would like to see (for myself) is societies emerge where lots of freedom exists and designed into the system. I think Doug Casey's project, which is going in this direction, is very important. The seasteading project is another exciting project. I would like to see entrepreneurs coming up with more such designed projects.

These projects, of course, are not necessarily designed on the idea that the founders think they  know best what "natural rights" are and how everyone else in the WORLD should live. They could simply be societies designed along the lines of the non-aggression principle, designed to attract other like minded people.

I hasten to add that I have no problem with anyone who attempts to turn current governments into such designed societies, not because there is some mythical "natural rights," but because, again, I would want to live in such societies.

There may be other options. Perhaps there are ways to construct mini-societies within a greater more totalitarian society. Perhaps it is best to think about constructing such societies in lands where there are weak governments. Perhaps, it should be done offshore. Perhaps there are ways to turn state, local or federal governments into more free market societies.

I urge "free market entrepreneurs" to advance the development of such projects wherever they see the possibility of success. The more attempts, the better. And as long as the societies respect private property and are built upon the non-aggression principle, I really don't care how the decision was made to build such a foundation, whether it was because of a belief in natural rights, belief in the Ten Commandments, inspiration from Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises or Lau Tzu, who said governments are to be more feared than "fierce tigers." As long as we get there I will be very happy.


  1. This is the kind of argument that makes government look sensible. Nobody would offer this sort of contract because the costs of enforcement could be huge because anyone defaulting and imprisoned would spent all their time attempting to escape or if you try to force to them, are you going to beat them? because that how this will end up, as a bloodbath. If you are that worried about a default, just say no.

    1. Which means you wouldn't enter into that kind of contract, which is fine. The point is that there are no "natural rights" which result in all of us being forced in one direction. Under Block's "natural rights" view relative to debt default, there would be no options, under private contraction, Block can borrow under such terms everyday and the rest of us can pass.

      My point is, as indicated by the title, that "natural rights" is a kind of central planning (like government), which is not needed to create a free society.

    2. rw, if i am trying to take your life, do you have a natural right to defend yourself against this agression? or is this a designed right.

      a "natural right" is simply a phrase given to the concept of when one is justified in defending oneself. no?

    3. This is a deliberate distortion of both Kinsella and Block's viewpoints. Both men have a large corpus of work and both have many times explicitly rejected a "central planner" view of the workings of a market-provided justice system. The conversation in reference was clearly an example of what happens whenever market-oriented anarchists get together: speculation on what would emerge absent the state. Speculation is not prescription.

      Clearly, philosophy will play a role in shaping the market. If you can convince enough people that Zeus declares this to be the just consequence of X crime, and they all voluntarily contract with your arbitration/defense agency, then they can be bound by those norms without violating anyone else's. Just as you rightly point out that it's completely libertarian for kibbutzim and other communist experiments to create their own voluntary societies, perhaps the justice philosophy Block and Kinsella outline would find a market. Perhaps not. Neither man can be justly accused of planning to impose such a system on society at large.

      Kinsella himself has a very blunt essay somewhere where he calls out the consequentialists as not being true anarchist libertarians. "You're not a libertarian if you'd renounce liberty if a stateless society didn't turn out the way you wanted." (paraphrased). I've lost respect for Block over his choice to pursue hero worship over philosophy (redefining the litmus test for libertarianism as support for Ron Paul's campaign to be the President of the United States of America, since clearly the NAP is disposable), but especially find this accusation against Kinsella unfounded.

    4. Such a contract is only enforceable by a state with substantial policing powers (obviously a terrible solution) or some sort of huge landowner with a bunch of serfs within a recognized feudal system.

      Otherwise, would you rat out an escaped slave, or would you take a job as an escaped slave hunter? I sure wouldn't. BTW, are slaves aloud to keep and bear arms?

      As for debtors prisons, would anyone like a system where banks can imprison you for not paying the mortgage? You'll probably need a strong state for that.

      OTOH, I suspect the only reason we don't have debtors prison now is because you would have the horrible result (from the banks' point of view) of people avoiding debt at almost all costs. I certainly would rent rather than buy. And forget taking a college loan. Better to let a handful default while keeping the vast majority as debt slaves.

    5. @Brian Drake

      You write:

      "This is a deliberate distortion of both Kinsella and Block's viewpoints."

      Listen to the debate yourself. Wenzel is correctly outlining what they state. If they have written differently elsewhere, they are simply being inconsistent.

    6. Sorry, don't see how it (or anything, for that matter) makes government look "sensible".

      I have to agree with BD. This is armchair speculation based on the NAP. In some cases, e.g. in that of murder, the NAP will always find societies that allows this form of action to be wanting from the point of view of legal justification. Whilst individiduals can waive or transfer their rights via contracts, if they do not possess a right to begin with, there is nothing to waive or transfer, and contracts cannot undo that.

    7. "The point is that there are no "natural rights" which result in all of us being forced in one direction."

      You are turning the concept of natural rights on its head. Under natural rights as seen in libertarianism, you CAN go any direction you choose, because you own yourself. You just don't own anybody else. But before you can choose where to go, you MUST first actually own yourself.

      Without natural rights, however, there is no definitive self-ownership and all CAN be forced in one direction by those whose numbers are the greatest, since designed rights mean nothing unless a majority agrees with the contents of it. You can have all the fancy designed rights in mind that you please, but those with opposite ideas of designed rights can do to you whatever they please without any sort of justice system in place to mediate, since you can't judge on subjective ideas.

      The only kind of added "freedom" in your DR society vis-a-vis the natural rights society is the freedom to initiate force against others, since self-ownership has become a fiction.

    8. It seems to me that in a DR right society, NAP would be contract-based.

      Emanuele M.

  2. I'm really looking forward Robert to a further exposition on your thoughts on designed rights.

    I've always been uncomfortable with the "logic" surrounding the mysticism of "natural rights" and happen to agree with you on the concepts I've read so fair in regard to designed rights.

    1. It dovetails nicely with Casey's thoughts on "phyles" and the future voluntary organization of society.

    2. There's the potential of a true "social contract" concept(not the BS associated with the Constitution)....with some difficulties surrounding how to apply it to the kids of parents(assuming parents voluntarily accepted the "rules" of their particular society) once they reach "adult" age and become bound by them to such a society.(if they choose not to, how do you peacefully transition them out of such a society?). That type of question lends itself to Dr. Block's type of expertise in my mind, but I digress.

    Anyway, I like the foundation of your thoughts so far in regard to designed rights and look forward to reading more.

    1. I agree. The more I hear, the more I like it. As per the kids question, the Amish already have a system in that regard. When kids turn 16, they are allowed to venture out and experience the non-Amish world. After a set amount of time (1 or 2 years, I believe) they must decide if they want to follow the Amish ways or move on.

  3. Bob,

    I find that your argument for what you call "designed rights" based on contract is perfectly sound. However, I find your distaste for the "natural rights" approach a little odd due to a contractual society being founded solely on the merit of natural rights. For instance, how can a contractual society have contracts without private property? And how can private property exist without natural rights to such? It appears that what you are attempting to develop is already tautologically implied within the concept of "natural rights," which include private property, which includes contracts. The non-aggression principle fits in after the adoption of private property.

    I think you misunderstand (or perhaps I do) that Block and Kinsella take as given the rights granted naturally to each individual to his person and property for each person in the entire world only in the absence of voluntary contracts yet to be made. Once contracts of any kind are made, then the terms of the contract must reign until the end of the contract, whatever they may be without limitation (if you argue as Block does).

    The fact that kibbutzes, Amish paradises, seasteads, and Doug Casey Gulches may contractually exist is predicated solely on the concept of natural rights to person and property.

    It seems to me that you are arguing in favor of the implications of a concept while denigrating the initial concept without which the implications cannot exist. It makes me curious as to how you have structured these concepts in your mind. Hopefully your book on the subject will elucidate your view.

    1. @Ted Sonnier

      Why can't a contractual society recognize property rights? No natural rights needed.

      Or think of it this way, why can't a contractual society recognize only half the rights you consider "natural" but not the other half. Couldn't a society like this exist?

      The dumping of "natural rights" by Wenzel expands those who may want to live in some form of free society, but come at it from a different perspective.

    2. Kinsella doesn't actually believe in natural rights. He comes to similar conclusions via his estoppel approach to ethics, though.

    3. Contracts concern matters over which the contracting parties have authority, i.e. their own actions or transfer of title with respect to property. People can certainly agree by contract to recognise a right to appropriate goods in the real world. Which is fine. It also means that no ground has been moved in terms of justifying the concept of ownership to individuals outside of the contract. Kinsella isn't a NR advocate anyway, but he comes to similar conclusions.

    4. You don't need property rights to have contracts. Take, for example, "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine." Now you could argue that this assumes self-ownership of your body, but most people would agree to this. In other words, self-ownership is an agreement between people. "I'll respect your self-ownership and you'll respect mine." And I think that may be the point of the "designed rights" concept. Rights can be viewed agreements, or verbal contracts, between people.

      Perhaps the whole debate can be summed up as a chicken-egg argument. What comes first, contracts or rights?

    5. I suppose I wonder why one would dispense with "natural rights" when the whole of one's program is implied therein.

      I could decree in Sonnier Town, of which I am the owner and CEO, that all citizens that contract with me to live in my town must eat a bag of Gummi Worms at noon on Fridays, and that all citizens that fail to do this for whatever reason forfeit a year's wages into my Pluto colony fund. These could be designed rights, or designed responsibilities by inverse. Yet, they are wholly reliant on the concept of private property, which has to come from somewhere.

      Say a new island pops up in the Pacific. Two people come across it simultaneously and attempt to homestead it. Because there is a dispute as to who now owns this new island, there is no basis of rights through which we cooperate. Does this mean that one may shoot the other and end the dispute? If no, could there be an implied right to life that is natural to the human condition?

      Do you see that the concept of homesteading, which itself relies on first the ownership of self, must come before these so-called "designed rights"?

      Perhaps I am thinking about it incorrectly, but I see no way around: 1) that the framework for Wenzel's program already exists and does not hinder in any way the facets that he envisions or any others that might be imagined, which makes his desire to ditch it curious, and 2) how dispensing with "natural rights" helps ground his view both logically and philosophically.

      It seems to me that there lacks such grounding, since these designed rights must either be by fiat of the original property owner, which begs the question how he became a property owner, or else grounded by "natural rights" to property which are necessarily logically prior.

    6. There already are designed rights. You see it every day in every country.
      The rights are designed by the majority through government.

      Those who don't believe in natural rights, then do not recognize individual rights that supercede those rights designed by a majority.
      After all, who says that any individual rights, if not natural, have any merit?

      Everything starts with the individual. But first it must be established that the individual's rights must belong to him before he can voluntarily give them away. What would such rights mean if designed by the individual himself? It would be no more than declaring oneself a king when nobody else cares.
      So how do such rights ever belong to the individual, after which he can voluntarily compromise on them, if they are not natural?

      If nobody in the world will agree to your 'designed rights' of private property, self ownership and non-aggression, do your rights to them cease to exist?
      What if it is someone's designed right that he can break terms of contract anytime he chooses? Where is your claim that he cannot do so if rights are designed? Who says contracts need to be honored?
      What if it is someone's designed right to break into your home and kill you? You may have other designed rights but why is that HIS problem? He didn't agree to your version of designed rights. Why is your version of DR any more acceptable than his? Who decides who is wrong and who is right?

      Without natural rights, anarchism would become EXACTLY what Ayn Rand claimed it would.

      You can have any type of society you want from free market capitalism to communism, but first it must be established that people live in such a society voluntarily. And you can only establish this if you first establish a natural right to yourself and your will.
      Otherwise anarchism truly would mean nothing but all vs. all and chaos.

  4. How would your contractual agreement to settle a debt be outside the borders of natural rights? My understanding is that natural rights can be interpreted as simply logical deductions based on the fact that you are you and I am I and therefor we both own our own bodies. It is then wrong to initiate violence against one another because you would be acting against what is our nature. There is nothing mystical about that. Yes, I believe that God designed this world to be so yet if you do not believe you still must believe the universe is orderly, or where truth exists. We can find those truths by observation and logical deductions.

    To get back to the point, I see no reason why two people could not sign a contract to settle a debt where natural rights are acknowledged.

    1. Does this fall under your category of owning your own body?

    2. Are you implying if someone infringes on your right to not be aggressed upon then there is no natural rights?

      (Again because logically you are the only one who is yourself, the only one who acts as you therefor anyone aggressing against what nature has laid out for us is in contradiction to it.)

      If this is what you are implying how do you consider this not a wrong against what is natural and therefore evil? How does this contradict natural rights?

  5. The problem comes when the progressive believes he is entitled to a piece of me, and I disagree. I accuse him of aggression and he accuses me of the same. Violence ensues.

    1. Well ,look for a society that doesn't have such progressives. Isn't that what we are all trying to do now anyway?

    2. If progressives do not recognize your individual rights to private property and self-ownership, then you are assuming way too much when you say: "just look for another society."

      Who is to say progressives won't use aggressive force to keep you? Who is to say they won't enslave you, or keep your family someplace to extort you? Or that they won't kill you as soon as you profess your belief in another system of 'designed rights'?

      With designed rights, there is no such automatic thing as the freedom to look for a preferred society.
      If the basics of things like the NAP and private/self ownership are not recognized as inherent to the individual, anarchism would be a barbaric chaotic world of all vs all.

      With designed rights, contracts need not be honored, and ANY society can descent into chaos at the drop of a hat.

  6. Contracted repurcussions are the way to go. If I loan you money and you agree to pay it back, or you will have your own property confiscated to pay the amount, repo men would be the center of justice through retribution. Prisons need not come into the picture. Only proffesional property redistributers.

  7. This is thinking in process. So tear away...

    Do not "natural rights" flow from human nature and economic scarcity? If human nature is to seek a better future situation than the current one, and economic (time and resource) scarcity forces him to choose between means and ends, would not non-aggressive "natural rights" evolve absent coercive institutions? What Gary North referred the other day as the, "Nice guys finish first in the long run," theory.

    Division of labors satisfies future economic want better than theft as wealth is created for everyone involved and the energy involved with managing the risk of retaliation is nil. More time for unstressed leisure and more choices for satisfying unknown wants.

    Voluntary cooperation and wealth-generating skill building satisfy man's inclination towards survival by reducing the mental/physical effort of gaining that which satisfies his immediate and then, less immediate needs. It also satisfies the stress present when man can not provide for himself. The thief is always stressed when he is not around those who provide the wealth he takes; the thief is mentally/physically dependent on others, thus his freedom of action is bound by parameters outside his influence. His enjoyment of leisure is always short-term and his ability to satisfy desires always dependent on someone else's ability to create the satisfaction.

    Most humans do not have the capacity to use coercion without suffering a spiritual/emotional decline and a subsequent drop in enjoyment of whatever future situation. Most humans are not sociopaths. Call it post-traumatic stress, but I see empathetic desire not to reduce the situation of another human whose own desires for survival and comfort can immediately be related to. And, who, once alienated, may not desire to help achieve whatever division of labor may be necessary to satisfy an unknown future want.

    Is this not the naturally agreeable state of affairs that would develop absent coercive institutions?

    Some people have such a short-time preference that parasitism is a natural parasitic reaction to larger societies where their behavior may be diluted by a large crowd of producers in a society inhibited from freely reacting to parasitism by coercive institutions. In uninhibited markets, this type of behavior would be responded to by shame and ostracism by the group of producers whose own freedom to choose how to employ their resources is threatened by parasites. Some people may find pleasure in funding a strict wealth-consumer, but most people will find their resources, if not engaged in wealth-producing activities, will be slowly removed from their direction by the market.

    A wall may be built in many ways, but the most useful wall, the longest lasting, is built at a 90 degree angle to the surface of the Earth. Does anyone need to design this law or does it evolve naturally from experience in building walls?

  8. The natural way of humanity seems congruent with the idea that our "natural rights" would evolve absent institutions of overt coercion. A man alone can not coerce a group of wealth producers into giving up that wealth. But a small number of parasites, given the control of an institution of coercion, reduce and redistribute wealth as they see fit. In the same way voluntary cooperation incentivizes and increases wealth producing behaviors.

    Do you need to design for a group of people that this is so, or will groups of people, left to their own devices, discover this in the way a wall builder discovers a 90 degree wall? It's not an invention of the human mind, a design, it is the natural state of affairs for the human organism responding to a scarce resource driven environment.

    The real questions: what structure of human interaction best exhibits wealth-producing behaviors? Does mankind's survival require everyone to follow this structure or just some? Will people, responding to profit and loss, simply adopt the most useful paradigm without being told to do so, or is human nature such that a design outside of nature is required?

    Is evolution a concept very much different than profit and loss? Does it require designing or will the ecosystem move according to it's own unseen laws?

  9. This is an ironic commentary on Block's and Kinsella's discussion, because the whole point was to figure out how far the power of the contracts goes. Can one contract himself out to be a slave? Would such a contract be binding? Why or why not?

    For those who don't believe in the mysticism of natural rights: what makes you believe in the mysticism of contracts?

  10. Bob, great post here. I'd never thought of natural rights in that way. I immediately thought of john hasnas, The Myth of the Rule of Law and how a globally accepted idea of natural rights could spiral out of control. But I still think there needs to be a core set of base rights that are built on. And perhaps it's all built on private property.

    All seems like a pipe dream in our current Dick Cheney I'd torture again world.