I identify as an anarcho-capitalist and a moral nihilist. In this post I'll try to sketch my most strongly held convictions about ethics and politics, with a focus on the relationships between them. This won't be an attempt to argue persuasively in favour of any of the positions I hold, or even to explain them carefully. I'm instead interested in showing how the pieces fit together.
A cascade of heuristics
In the world as it is, I believe:
- Any move towards anarcho-capitalism will tend to
- Minimise monopolies. Which will tend to
- Improve general wellbeing. Which will tend to
- Satisfy my personal preferences.
Each of the heuristics above earns its keep commensurate with how well I believe it facilitates the step beneath. These are heuristics that won't deliver an optimal result in every case, but I believe they'll give a superior result to alternate systems, and that moving through the cascade as a whole will tend to give better results than attempting to skip any of the steps it contains.
I'll summarise quickly why I'm not a believer (at least not in the fullest sense) in libertarian natural law. Natural law ancaps like Rothbard advocate an order in which private property is universally respected/enforced, along neo-Lockean lines.
I believe natural law theorists fall short in their attempts to establish that rights are anything but agreements between people about how they must treat one another. I think that rationalist attempts to deduce a objective ethical code from the nature of man, or from the facts of argumentation fail too. To me, social constructivist and moral nihilist accounts of rights and ethics are much more compelling, because of their parsimony and explanatory power.
Before it can be of any use in the world, natural-law needs a set of inherently subjective line-drawing decisions, to make identifying rights violations possible. These are known as continuum problems. The dependence of natural-law on the content of these rulings for its implementation means it has an inherent indeterminism — we don’t know what a real world implementation of natural rights would look like, because that would depend to a very large extent on how private judges draw lines.
I wrote more about this in the post NAPI. Non-aggression principle insufficiency.
That all said, if I assume the kinds of rulings that writers on natural law also seem to assume (as I will do from now on in this post), I agree with the ancap rationalists that a neo-Lockean private property order would be desirable in relation to the status quo. I disagree with their view that it's possible to reach that conclusion through deductive reason.
A Schelling point
Natural rights are a fiction in my view, but strike me as a relatively good Schelling point for a governing norm; We have strong and agreeing intuitions about examples of legitimate property, and about unacceptable violence and theft, in many contexts. These intuitions accord with the prescriptions of neo-Lockean property rights. People prefer consistency in their moral judgements, and a natural law approach can satisfy that need well; Better, I claim, than either statist legal positivism, or 'we the people' mysticism can.
Why do I advocate for set of rules that are dependent on fictions, rather than for the 'raw' moral nihilism that I believe is true, instead?
- Compared to advocating for ancap, energetically advocating moral nihilism seems likely to move the world by a lesser distance towards an outcome I strongly prefer (general wellbeing).
- People want to know how to act. And moral nihilism isn't any use for answering that question. I believe moral fictionalism is the appropriate fix. Here's roughly how it works out in my own life: I 'pretend' that moral facts exist – this is easy because this make-believe accords with my moral feelings, and usually with those of the people around me. This allows me to better realise my preferences.
Prospects of change
Even if ancap is a possible Schelling point, we do currently have representative democracy (generalising), and not anarcho-capitalism. What grounds are there for supposing that a shift in governance in that direction is possible?
'Underthrow' technologies (synergistically social and digital) are emerging that undermine the state's ability to wield coercive power, in all kinds of subtle ways. They're bringing exit from its systems ever more conveniently within reach. As this trend progresses there's less and less reason for the state's subjects to rationalize their victimisation. These forces may move us to an inflection point from which we'll leave behind the forms of governance we're habituated to.
The sanctity of rights, while very important shouldn't be our paramount concern. Consider Robinson Crusoe: Close to starvation, alone on an island, with his natural rights uninfringed on. Crusoe is arguable worse off than he would be if he was a typical citizen under a (natural-rights violating) representative democracy today.
William Nava has a podcast episode where he talks about his belief that free market advocates should be more interested in minimising monopolies than in ensuring the sanctity of property rights. I agree, sort of.
In the episode he sets out a thought experiment in which landlords in an ancap order have gotten ownership of large contiguous areas of land, and form a conglomerate. Because the territory is so large, the renters of property within it face high costs if they want to leave. The way I'd frame the scenario is that the relative difficulty and high cost of leaving means that the owners of the land can get away with imposing more restrictions on the freedoms of the persons living there than we're used to under existing representative democratic regimes. I agree that this situation might be much worse than what we have now, even though no-ones rights have been violated according to natural-law.
To a very large extent, it's competition between providers of goods and services that makes our lives better. Monopolies are the antithesis of this competition, but they are compatible with ancap.
I don’t want a private property society for its own sake, I want one because I think it’s the order that would best satisfy my preferences for wellbeing, because it will tend to minimise monopoly power (the opposite of what newly minted critics of ancap reflexively assume). If I came to believe that another system would do a better job of minimising monopoly, all else somehow equal, I would advocate for that approach instead.
A benevolent superhuman AI monopolist
Anti-monopolism is also a heuristic. It may not always be the case that minimising monopoly is best for human well-being. Imagine a superhuman AI without typical human failings, with no competitors, managing the production of goods and services for humans. This AI incorporates preference-satisfaction and opportunity cost feedback into its calculations by a mechanism we can’t currently imagine. It’s not obvious that this situation would be improved with the addition of a competing food provider – it might even be made worse because of inefficient resource use.
I don't want to minimise monopolies because of badness that's intrinsic to them, but because monopolies (especially in the context of the world as we know it) tend to hurt wellbeing; They result in higher prices and poorer quality of service than tend to obtain under conditions of competition.
In this sketch I hope to have shown how my ethical and socio-political beliefs hang together at the moment. They might change. Compared to other things I've written, I'm a good deal less certain about what the ideas I've expressed here. If I change my mind sufficiently in the future on any of this I'll write a new post and link to it below.