Binswanger on Anarchism

456px-BlackFlagSymbol.svgHarry Binswanger, a leading Objectivist philosopher, advances a simple argument that he thinks suffices to undermine libertarian anarchism. The argument is found in his article of January 24 for Forbes, “Sorry, Libertarian Anarchists, Capitalism Requires Government.”

Binswanger’s argument starts from a correct premise. In a free market exchange, each party to the exchange expects to benefit. In Objectivist language, a trade is an exchange of value for value. But force is not a value — it is the negation of value. Therefore, protective services are not a proper subject for market competition. They must be provided by a government monopoly.

As Binswanger puts his argument:

Production is the creation of value, and trade is the voluntary exchange of value for value, to mutual benefit. Force is destruction, or the threat of it. It may be the destruction of a value, as when a hoodlum throws a rock through a store window. Or it may be the destruction of destruction, as when a policeman pulls a gun on that hoodlum and hauls him off to jail. But in either case, it is the opposite of wealth-creation and voluntary trade.

Force properly employed is used only in retaliation, but even when retaliatory, force merely eliminates a negative, it cannot create value. The threat of force is used to make someone obey, to thwart his will. The only moral use of force is in self-defense, to protect one’s rights. . . . The wielding of force is not a business function. In fact, force is outside the realm of economics. Economics concerns production and trade, not destruction and seizure.

Ask yourself what it means to have a “competition” in governmental services. It’s a “competition” in wielding force, a “competition” in subjugating others, a “competition” in making people obey commands. That’s not “competition,” it’s violent conflict. On a large scale, it’s war.

I’m surprised that Binswanger missed the obvious mistake in this argument. A policeman arresting a suspect is not engaged in an economic exchange with him. So far, Binswanger is entirely right. But someone who purchases defense services from a protection agency is not using force. He is exchanging money for the service of protection; and that is, contrary to Binswanger, an exchange of value — money — for value — protection. The fact that protection may involve the use of force on criminals does not change its status as an economically valued good. Binswanger, in brief, confuses, the economic transaction of purchasing protection with the use of force .

Binswanger falls into a related confusion in another passage of his article. He says:

The anarchists object to the very idea of a monopoly on force. That only shows that they cannot grasp what force is. Force is monopoly. To use force is to attempt to monopolize. The cop or the gunman says: “We’ll do it my way, not your way–or else.” There is no such thing as force that allows dissenters to go their own way. If a man wants to have sex with a woman who doesn’t want it, only one of them can have their way. It’s either “Back off” or rape. Either way, it’s a monopoly.

This is not correct. Someone using force does not allow those whom the force is directed against to go their own way, true enough. But the user of force need not claim a monopoly. He need not claim that no one else is free to use force against his target. By the way, I would have thought that after The Fountainhead, Objectivists would stay away from examples that involve rape.

Binswanger’s article contains other mistakes as well. He says that a free market presupposes objective law, but he fails to show that objective law requires a government. But he devotes his principal attention to the argument that contrasts force with economic value.

As an Objectivist in good standing, Binswanger had better hope that this argument fails. The sort of government that Ayn Rand and her followers favor does not extract resources from people through taxation. It depends on voluntary funding, e.g, user-fees for its protective and judicial services. If Binswanger were right, such services could not be the object of market purchase. Because they involve the use of force, they are not a value. How then can they be offered for sale? Or does Binswanger think that it is all right to purchase protection from a monopoly, but not from a competitive enterprise?

By the way, readers who come across philosophical arguments that try to refute Austrian economics or libertarianism are invited to send them to me.

Comments

  1. “But someone who purchases defense services from a protection agency is not using force.”

    This is like saying that someone who hires a hit-man is not using force. Absolutely this is using force. The fact that you have your agent carry out the act for you does not change the fact that it is you who deciding when and where to use force.

    “The fact that protection may involve the use of force on criminals does not change its status as an economically valued good.”

    There’s a sleight of hand going on here. What does “its” refer to? Binswanger is saying that force is not an economically valued good, whereas the point of the above only shows that “protection” is valued. But what does “protection” consist of? It consists of being free of force.

    Being free of force is the value and the service being provided by government. This is not trading in force.

    • A purchases protection from B which involves using force against C. There is no “force exchange” between A and B. The force is between B and C, or A and C (through B) if you want to think of it that way. But not between A and B who are the actual parties to the economic exchange. This is so incredibly simple and clear, you either disqualify yourself as a competent thinker by not seeing it, or demonstrate your belligerence and dishonesty by willfully refusing to.

      “Being free of force is the value and the service being provided by government.”

      That’s just nebulous nonsense. That’s like saying “feeling yummy in my tummy” is the actual good offered by a restaurant. No, the restaurant sells food. How you subjectively enjoy what they sell is irrelevant to defining what they sell.

      Even if we accept that government (by which we are referring to a state; monopoly government) “trades” anything, it is not “being free of force” that is offered. It is (in the strictly minarchist case) the use of force to deter, intercept, and/or punish after the fact those who would initiate force against you. “Being free of force” is not something they can provide, nor can promise. And of course, the obvious contradiction is that to maintain a monopoly, they must themselves use force against any refusing their jurisdiction (what they call “insurrection/rebellion”) or seeking to compete (what they call “foreign invasion”). So clearly you are not free of force, since the very agency supposedly offering you that, is already using force against you. It’s like a rapist saying he’s protecting you from rape, because as long as he’s violently occupying a particular orifice, it prevents others from doing the same.

      • ““Being free of force” is not something they can provide, nor can promise. And of course, the obvious contradiction is that to maintain a monopoly, they must themselves use force against any refusing their jurisdiction (what they call “insurrection/rebellion”) or seeking to compete (what they call “foreign invasion”). So clearly you are not free of force, since the very agency supposedly offering you that, is already using force against you.”

        Nevertheless, the Objectivist position is that government, and only government, CAN “extract force from society.” Even neglecting the “obvious contradiction,” this is impossible. However, to those for whom government is an omnipotent power, it is self-evident that it can do anything they want it to do. Never mind that the means proposed cannot actually achieve the ends desired.

        As to the ‘obvious contradiction,” Objectivists do not see that as initiating force. They reason just like progressive advocates of democracy. Since they consent to it, it is not force. And further, they think, everyone MUST consent (making a mockery of the concept of consent) to it because that is the only way (they believe) to have a capitalist society. Anyone who does not consent they deem to be a threat to everyone else, which they consider to be initiating force, and therefore the force used against dissidents is just defensive. At least, that is the way Objectivist thinking goes.

    • He didn’t ignore it. He stated that Binswanger did not make it.

      “He says that a free market presupposes objective law, but he fails to show that objective law requires a government.”

      Perhaps Gordon could be faulted for not knowing the argument and addressing it. But, in the same way Binswanger could be faulted for not knowing the (various) anarchist arguments for why market anarchy can provide objective law and addressing them. Probably neither has sufficient interest (in something each knows in advance to be wrong) to bother to learn and study the arguments of the other so as to be able to offer refutations.

      • In my article, I was concerned only to address what Binswanger said. I did not not attempt the much more ambitious task of offering a general defense of anarchism. Your conjecture that I am uninterested in Objectivist arguments that objective law requires a government, and for that reason ignorant of these arguments,isn’t correct. See, e.g., http://mises.org/misesreview_detail.aspx?control=340

        • There is nothing in your review to indicate any awareness (on your part of that of the authors of the book) of the substance of the Objectivist argument, only of its conclusion. That does not mean you or they were necessarily ignorant of it, of course.

          • What is the Objectivist argument that you have in mind? The main Objectivist argument on the issue that I’m familiar with has to do with the need to avoid conflicts over the interpretation of law. Competing protection agencies, it is claimed, would introduce subjectivity in interpretation, which would lead to such conflicts. This argument is discussed in the review I linked to, but maybe I’m missing something.

          • The argument to which you refer is the negative argument against “competing protection agencies” which only arises in the peripheral context of arguing with anarcho-capitalists. The argument I have in mind, and which I presume Amaroq was taking you to task for “ignoring,” is the positive argument for the necessity of government (which was implicit in Binswanger’s essay).

            I’ll try to sketch this argument (some form of which you have probably read in passing but never taken seriously) at the risk of being taken to task by combative Objectivists whose understanding differs from mine.

            1) The survival of a human is made possible by rational thought and action. Coercion makes this impossible. Therefore, it is necessary that the initiation of force be removed from society.

            2) A separate agency that monopolizes the retaliatory use of force is the means necessary to do this and the elimination of coercion from human affairs is the only legitimate purpose of government.

            If you do not see how proposition 1 (which you probably would not much object to) implies proposition 2, that is because it is a non-sequitur. However, Objectivist thinking does not view it that way.

            According to Objectivist thinking the monopoly is essential because otherwise force has not been removed from society and confined to an outside agency. Objectivists do not want to have to provide for or be responsible for their own defense or even have to think about it. They want it to be done for them, automatically. They want to live in a society in which, normally, there can never be a need for them to be armed, for instance. And they see (a “proper”) government as a means to guarantee that they can have what they want. Anarcho-capitalism is unacceptable because it does not come with a government guarantee.

            This is just like progressives do not want to have to provide for or be responsible for their own medical care. They want it to be provided for them, automatically. And they see government as a means to guarantee their wants.

            This is sloppy thinking, of course. Beyond the usual anarcho-capitalist quibbling about whether a monopoly is really necessary to achieve the desired end, there is a more fundamental problem. There is no reason (even neglecting moral inconsistencies) to think that the end that Objectivists seek (a coercion free social order) COULD be achieved by any government. They just make that arbitrary assertion which, to most people, is so plausible that Objectivists can get away without ever having to justify it (and I have seen no indication that it ever occurred to any of them that there was any need to do so).

          • Craig,

            I don’t see how 1) is true at all. Coercion does not make human survival impossible, individually or collectively (it’s unclear which definition you’re using; human being or human race), as history and experience clearly show. Slavery doesn’t kill the slaves, nor does it kill the slave masters. You can make all sorts of moral judgments and nebulous statements like “but slavery deprives the slave AND the master of their humanity”, but that’s then equivocation if you lead with “survival”, which instead describes continued biological existence and perhaps success in reproduction (from a Darwinian point of view).

            I think David more accurately summarizes the “Objectivist argument” by referring to their rejection of the “subjectivity in interpretation” that competition would cause. It’s a false argument (the Objectivist one, not David’s) since there’s no reason to believe a monopoly will result in “objectivity” and since a monopoly cannot be established by any means other than the initiation of force (thus invalidating the supposed purpose of the law it is charged with objectively applying). But that’s when it becomes clear that “objective” is really just a euphemism for autocratic, just as Ayn Rand’s subjective values were declared “objective” by her cult followers.

          • Brian,

            It is a philosophic argument. The individual production that makes individual human survival possible is the result of individual action guided by individual human thought. This is true in the abstract even tho each of the individual attributes in the chain above need not be pertain to the same individual. The characteristic of force is that it renders null the thoughts of the individual to whom it is applied. Therefore, the extent to which force rules is the extent to which the means of survival (of each individual, altho not all to the same extent) are diminished. In the extreme case where all individuals were reduced to complete automatons by force they would soon enough die blindly.

            You are right that “Slavery doesn’t kill the slaves, nor does it kill the slave masters.” At least not completely. But it does diminish the ability to live of the slaves and even of the slave masters. The ability of the slaves to produce is the result of the extent to which they are allowed to think or to which they are forced to act according to the thinking of others who are free to think. The slave master is deprived of the increased opportunities (which, due to the multiplying effects of commerce, far exceed what he can steal by domination) he would have if his slaves were free to prosper as self-owning thinking beings.

            Objective is not a euphemism for autocratic. It has a real, important and desirable meaning which Objectivists have articulated well. In an anarcho-capitalist society objective law would be highly valued. The actual error is two fold.

            (1) Objectivists cannot conceive of any process by which objective law might arise except by autocratic edict. In this, they are like subjectivists. They think that there is no (rational) way to settle such differences (by either intellectual or practical means) and therefore the only way to have a coherent society is to impose uniformity by force. This is a variant of the planning vs. spontaneous order error.

            (2) And they naively think that it is possible for autocratic edict to result in objective law. They say that enforcing objective law is the function of a “proper” government. But saying that does not make it possible. There is no reason to think that the uniformity imposed by government will be objective and not arbitrary.

            These problems are more fundamental than the “obvious contradiction” that establishing a government requires the initiation of force.

          • Craig,

            Nothing in your first paragraph supports the claim that coercion makes human survival impossible. I don’t see why labeling it a “philosophical argument” gives you license to equivocate by changing survival into optimum prosperity. The fact remains, you can enslave someone and they still survive. You still survive. As to the slave owner losing out, this isn’t necessarily true either. It does not follow that because a slave would be more productive as a free man, the “take” of the slave master would be greater as a smaller portion of the greater general production under freedom, than it is as a larger (or complete portion) or the reduced (by coercion) production under slavery.

            You first disagree with me “Objective is not a euphemism for autocratic.” and then the next paragraph you write “Objectivists cannot conceive of any process by which objective law might arise except by autocratic edict.” proving my point. My point was that Objectivists, in insisting upon “objective law” and insisting it can only be provided by a state, are de facto describing autocracy. So regardless of how they define “objective law”, the reality remains that they are truly just advocating autocracy (whether they realize it or not) and their insisted definition is irrelevant.

            But considering the slavish adulation of Ayn Rand demonstrated by most Objectivists I’ve encountered, the idea that at least some of them actually recognize they advocate autocracy is very plausible to me since they do seem like a crowd that buys into the “philosopher king” concept in action if not outright in word.

  2. I find it hard to take Binswanger seriously. In an article he wrote for Forbes titled “Give Back? Yes, It’s Time For The 99% To Give Back To The 1%,” he said, “Imagine the effect on our culture, particularly on the young, if the kind of fame and adulation bathing Lady Gaga attached to the more notable achievements of say, Warren Buffett. Or if the moral praise showered on Mother Teresa went to someone like Lloyd Blankfein, who, in guiding Goldman Sachs toward billions in profits, has done infinitely more for mankind. (Since profit is the market value of the product minus the market value of factors used, profit represents the value created.)

    Instead, we live in a culture where Goldman Sachs is smeared as ‘a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity.’ That’s for the sin of successful investing, channeling savings to their most productive uses, instead of wasting them on government boondoggles like Solyndra and bridges to nowhere.”

    Now I’m no fan of populist rantings about the supposedly greedy 1% (of which I am not a member), but to claim that GS earns all its money honestly and is this great benefactor of humanity shows a profound ignorance of how GS works. The company has had hundreds if not thousands of corruption charges brought against it, including for unloading tons of assets on its clients that it knew were toxic. Thanks to the Mises Institute and other organizations, I understand a lot more about the free market now than I ever did and have become a firm proponent of it, but I also know enough to recognize that GS hardly plays in a free market. It is probably the most politically well-connected firm on Wall Street, and it uses its connections to profit mightily. So of all the ways that Binswanger could have used to defend the free market, he actually holds up one of the most anti-free-market, most corrupt, and most despicable firms in the world as a beacon of honest money being used to benefit humanity? With friends like that, the free market needs no more Charles Schumers.

  3. “First, Binswanger explicitly states that the purchase of private protection not sanctioned by government has to be viewed, by a proper rights respecting govt, as an implicit threat of force and is therefore outside the realm of economic transactions. Now, you may disagree with this assertion but if you agree that retaliatory force is not an economic transaction then your rebuttal above is merely a straw man argument.”

    Why does it have to be viewed as such? Because it is a threat to a monopoly? But then why does the monopoly exist in the first place?

    “Second, paying money to a rights respecting govt, voluntarily, for the services of police self defense, can reasonably be viewed as pre-economic in the sense that those services are a necessary pre-condition to the production of values.”

    Much like purchasing food or breathing air. This is typical Objectivist/statist special pleading.

    “One cannot plant or reap a harvest under the constant threat of arbitrary destruction so whatever values that are exchanged to ensure the security of a longer term production process can be viewed as a cost built into that act of production. The police do not “produce” any value, they are necessary to ensure that everyone else can.”

    Right. And this implies a monopoly, because…?

    Because you have two agencies arguing, and then what. WAR!

    Really? Is this the extent to which Objectivists have examined anarchist arguments from the libertarian side? Shameful.

  4. @David Gordon,

    “Binswanger, in brief, confuses, the economic transaction of purchasing protection with the use of force .”The fact that protection may involve the use of force on criminals does not change its status as an economically valued good. Binswanger, in brief, confuses, the economic transaction of purchasing protection with the use of force .”

    You have misconstrued this argument in at least two ways. First, Binswanger explicitly states that the purchase of private protection not sanctioned by government has to be viewed, by a proper rights respecting govt, as an implicit threat of force and is therefore outside the realm of economic transactions. Now, you may disagree with this assertion but if you agree that retaliatory force is not an economic transaction then your rebuttal above is merely a straw man argument.

    Second, paying money to a rights respecting govt, voluntarily, for the services of police self defense, can reasonably be viewed as pre-economic in the sense that those services are a necessary pre-condition to the production of values. One cannot plant or reap a harvest under the constant threat of arbitrary destruction so whatever values that are exchanged to ensure the security of a longer term production process can be viewed as a cost built into that act of production. The police do not “produce” any value, they are necessary to ensure that everyone else can.

    “But the user of force need not claim a monopoly. He need not claim that no one else is free to use force against his target.”

    Again, this misses the point. The argument is that the user of force necessarily imposes a monopoly *on his victim*. The fact that a victim can be victimized by multiple people is immaterial.

    “He says that a free market presupposes objective law, but he fails to show that objective law requires a government. ”

    No, he didn’t. But Ayn Rand did. But you knew that already.

    • Thanks very much for your comment. You reiterate Binswanger’s point that force is not a productive value. Even the proper use of force by a rights-respecting government, you say, does not produce value. This merely removes an obstacle to the creation and exchange of productive values by others. Thus, purchasing protective services is not an economic transaction. Even purchasing these services from a legitimate government is “pre-economic.”

      The problem I have with this argument lies in its arbitrary premise. Why “must” an economic transaction be confined to what Objectivists class as productive values? If people offer protective services for sale and buyers wish to purchase them, why does this not suffice for an economic transaction? “Because Binswanger and Rand say it doesn’t” isn’t a good answer.

      • Is fire insurance a “productive value?”

        1) Fire insurance does not create (new) wealth like a scientific discovery, the invention of a new product, or constructive work. For society as a whole, fire insurance might even be a net loss in the sense that, everything else being equal (it is not), there will be less total wealth as a result of it. So, you might say it is not a productive value.

        2) However, to the extent the buyer prefers paying the premium to obtain some reimbursement in the case of loss to running the risk of (the entire) loss, then fire insurance is of value to him. So, you might say that (to the individual) it might be a productive value.

        Furthermore, to the extent that the insurance (by providing peace of mind, etc.) might alter behavior so as to increase the individual’s productivity it might actually increase the wealth produced. This is just the way that the extent of protection for individual rights enables a (beneficial) capitalist society.

        By selectively equivocating between these two possible meanings for the notion of productive value Binswanger can obtain any conclusion he wants. To be an economic object fire insurance must be a productive value in the second sense. But since fire insurance is not a productive value in the first sense then it must not be an economic object. At least, that is his “logic.”

  5. Excellent analysis. Thank you for posting.

    I guess I lucked out in coming to libertarianism through Rothbard and thus skipped the common Ayn Rand “phase”. Because the more I learn of Rand, and her followers, the more confused I am by the respect she’s given. Binswanger’s argument is so shoddy it really strains credulity to give him the benefit of the doubt and attribute it to honest error. Likewise, doesn’t Objectivism declare the NAP as a fundamental principle? Yet somehow, the fact that monopoly government violates the NAP was beyond the grasp of Rand’s supposedly superior intellect? The topic of anarchy really seems to expose the “Goddess of Reason” as just another “whim worshiper”.

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