The Fox Guarding the Chicken Coop: An Interview with Jan Narveson

By Alberto Mingardi

First published in The Laissez Faire City Times, Vol 3, No 34, August 30, 1999

Jan Narveson is professor of philosphy at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and author of The Libertarian Idea, an interesting reflection on libertarianism.

Narveson, a native of Minnesota as well as a naturalized citizen of Canada, has been teaching since 1963. His publications include over two hundred papers and reviews in philosophical periodicals and anthologies, mainly on ethical theory and practice. His books include Morality and Utility (Johns Hopkins Press, 1967), The Libertarian Idea (Temple University Press, 1989), Moral Matters (Broadview Press, 1993; 2nd edition, 1999), and an anthology, Moral Issues (Oxford U.P. 1983). He is also co-author, with Marilyn Friedman, of Political Correctness (1995), and co-editor with Jack Sanders of For and Against the State (1996).

Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Professor Narveson has presented hundreds of talks and papers to university and other audiences around North America and the U.K., and is a frequent contributor to Internet discussions of political and moral issues (not to mention his favorite non-philosophical interest, music).

This Internet interview concerns the major themes of the libertarian philosophy, like utilitarianism, contractarianism, and natural rights.

What is the philosophical tradition which you’ve found the most important as a basis for freedom and modern libertarianism?

Certainly it’s the “contractarian” view. [David] Gauthier [author of Morals by Agreement] does a wonderful job of exposition, even though I dissent from it on several fairly important points. But the basic idea is this. We each rationally proceed on our own interests. Those interests may also be called our “values”, if you like. We do not assume that those interests are selfish or egoistic – they might or might not be. However, morality cannot arise – as Kant saw clearly – from any special feelings or special interests. It arises, rather, from the fact of being interested beings who relate to each other in our lives. We interact, to use Gauthier’s excellent expression. Now, when we interact we sometimes come into conflict and sometimes not. When we do, the question arises what to do about it. Hobbes was the founding genius here. It was he who pointed out that we each have the power to make life miserable for each other, indeed to kill other people – any other people – if it came to that.

On the other hand, people can be immensely useful to each other, too. The problem for each of us is to capture the useful aspects and to avoid the potential for frustration, harm, and death. In order to do that, when we are dealing with people (as distinct from animals, volcanos, and other possible impediments), we must relate to other people’s practical reasoning ability. Now, my hypothesis is that when we size up the general situation vis-a-vis other people, we see that the very best we can do is to agree to let each other do as he pleases, so long as he does not thereby inflict costs or losses on others. So I hold that the Social Contract calls for a general right of liberty as the most general and fundamental moral right. In this I am in agreement with Hobbes, Locke, Kant, and even Mill (though Mill’s Liberty principle was thought by him to flow from utilitarianism – which I now deny.)

The contractarian and utilitarian approaches to libertarianism are often confused. What are the differences between these two views?

Contractarian is not the same as utilitarian, and does not give similar results. The Utilitarian, as in Bentham and Mill, holds that (1) everyone’s utility is cardinally measurable, in principle, and (2) for social and moral purposes, we should count an equal amount of anyone’s utility as equal to anyone else’s, intrinsically.

Utilitarianism is, actually, equivalent to another natural rights perspective—that’s why I stopped being a utilitarian.

Why have you abandoned utilitarianism?

A first essential point to see here is that individuals do not normally regard other people’s utility as having equal weight to their own (to put it mildly!). The significance of this point is what, I think, escaped me when I was first an enthusiastic utilitarian.

Of course, even to say that people aren’t like that is to assume that interpersonal comparisons of utility are possible and meaningful, and many have severe doubts about this (and for quite good reason). But the point is that even if it is possible, people aren’t like that. If Jones responds to his perception of Smith’s utility, say out of sympathy, then Jones has a special utility function in relation to Smith – for example, he, Jones, feels bad, upon perceiving that Smith feels bad, and so on.

If Albert thinks he’s a utilitarian (like Peter Singer, say) and tries to respond to his perception of everyone’s utility along the lines prescribed by the classical utilitarian principle (which calls for the maximization of aggregated cardinal interpersonally comparable utility), then he’s a very unusual person. For the rest of us, we will respond to others only as a function of our perception of how they actually or potentially affect ourselves. The modifications of our behavior that we might make as a result will be rational to make, and will probably be made, only on a basis of mutuality: you scratch my back, I scratch yours; you refrain from violence to me, I refrain from it to you. But the idea that I will do as much to advance your interests as I would if they were actually mine is absurd, and that is what classical utilitarianism seems to call for.

Now, in order to hold that people have a right to have their utility evaluated by all others at cardinal-par, one would have to take it that there was some reason for this other than one’s own utility, since the two are obviously not identical. But any basis for action for individual X that doesn’t suspend, in the end, from X’s own utility qualifies as intuitionistic or “natural rights” in the sense in which many people use the latter term. It also thereby qualifies the theory for rejection, I now think.

What do you mean by “natural rights”?

If by “natural rights” we mean, merely, those rights we have independently of legal systems, then all of us believe in natural rights; but what they are in turn based on is then an independent question.

Now, many people think of natural rights as, somehow, just “there”, without reference to the interests of the agents concerned. In this sense of the expression, I would deny that natural rights are a “basis” for anything. Rights always need to be justified; they themselves cannot be appealed to as fundamental justification for anything else.

Please explain the basis of this “trasformation” in your thinking.

The seeds of doubt were planted in my mind by David Gauthier in 1974, when he read his paper “Reason and Maximization” at a Workshop on Contractarianism at the University of Toronto. I was not immediately convinced, but I was impressed, and over the next couple of years I came to see that he was right and I was wrong regarding the foundations of morals and politics. They must, as I came to see, be based on the interests of us humans. Specifically, they must be based on a consideration of our interests in relation to each other. Hence the “social contract” idea: that the principles of morals and politics are those we agree to, each on the basis of his or her own interests, but in light of the fact that others too have interests and powers, and on the environment common to us.

Do you think that is another relevant dichotomy—the dichotomy between utilitarianism and ‘natural rights’ libertarianism?

Not really. But the distinction is confused. Utilitarianism seems to me a hopeless theory, as a theory. On the other hand, all of us, obviously, think that our favored social theory is going to be good for people. We all think (I hope we all think!) that people will do better as a result of the operation of a good social system, a good moral and political theory, as compared with a bad one. And that very general thought could easily enough be called “utilitarian”. But only in a sloppy sense of the word.

The strictly expressed view that philosophers identify with Utilitarianism is theone I described above, and it has horrendous problems. Natural rights, on the other hand, simply isn’t a foundational view, and those who profess it really don’t have a view. Or rather, they think they have one, though they really don’t. The “view” that there are “fundamental” natural rights that are not in turn based on anything is just pure assertion at bottom.

What are then the differences between a position like yours and a “classical” libertarian natural rights’ view, such as that of Murray Rothbard?

Rothbard, I think, does not really have a theory about the foundations of rights. He too starts with pure assertion. Mind you, the rights he is asserting make a lot of sense and many people will be persuaded without need of argument. The rest [of us], however, are another matter, and they, of course, will feel free to ignore everything Rothbard says.

Then, what’s your opinion on Rothbard’s contribution to libertarian theory?

I have read his The Ethics of Liberty but nothing else (thoroughly).

It’s hardly a contribution to fundamental ethical theory, but it is a pretty interesting piece of work, with a lot of very interesting and insightful analyses. Further, his understanding of the basic role of property rights is excellent. And he does not shrink from the inevitable inference from liberty, that the State is essentially illegitimate. He was one of the most consistent thinkers in the libertarian tradition, I think.

What are the principal relevant differences in libertarian thought today?

Well, first I should note that there are still, apparently, some people who think that libertarianism might be compatible with, or even require, the rejection of capitalism. Call that idea “socialist libertarianism.” Now such a theory seems to me to be utterly hopeless. What I said about utilitarianism applies here too: people simply aren’t about to share the proceeds of their work with everybody under the sun. And in addition, socialism requires central direction – I simply don’t see how people could fail to understand that. As soon as it does, libertarianism will be down the drain, so far as I can see. The only credible social form instantiating libertarianism will have to be capitalism – a private property society. I should add that this does not exclude worker-owned businesses, of course.

Indeed a great many businesses are worker-owned, large and small, and that’s fine. What is not fine is forcing all businesses to be worker-owned—[that is] quite another matter.

After that, I would say that the main general theoretical dispute among libertarians is between anarchist and statist versions. Now here it seems to me that the anarchist has the better of it, theoretically speaking. It is very difficult to justify the State on thorough-going libertarian grounds. I think statists have usually not perceived how difficult that is, actually. But most libertarians, I think, nevertheless think that the state should be protecting our liberty. There is a looming fox-and-chickens problem there, I must say. The state guarding our liberties is like the fox guarding the hen-house. (I am currently writing a book, possibly, about this) But that is where the main dispute between libertarians arises.

Of course, many people who say they are libertarians also tend to be Christian Fundamentalists, for example, or really to be some other form of conservative. But libertarianism cannot be conservative; the two are basically antithetical. The conservative holds that there are things we can make people do to make them live better, according to somebody else’s view of what constitutes living better. The libertarian holds that each person has the right to run his own life – for better or worse!

Socialist libertarianism? Do you assume libertarianism as an ideology in which the dialogue is open between anarcho-collectivists and individualists? Not libertarianism as natural son of classical liberal tradition?

Of course I should put the expression ‘socialist libertarianism’ in scare-quotes, for I regard it as essentially a contradiction in terms.

Certainly I would claim to be solidly in the classical liberal tradition – Hobbes, after all, is my hero in moral theory (though NOT in political theory!). So far as I can see, Locke, Hobbes, Kant, and the J.S. Mill of “On Liberty” are all libertarians.

In what sense is Hobbes your “hero” in moral theory ?

Hobbes sets aside all rhetoric and cant (all “bullshit”, to put it more colloquially). Instead, he looks at rational individuals, and asks what would happen if we stripped away all laws of any sort. In the process he shows why the first requirement of any society is a rejection of force against others as a way to do things. The first principle is peace.

Hobbes’ political philosophy is as disastrously wrong as his moral philosophy is insightflly right. However, the argument for the state is not stupid, and it has taken a long time for people to see through it. (See especially Anthony de Jasay’s recent book, Social Contract, Free Ride)

And what are the elements of (proto)libertarianism in the thought of Kant and Mill?

Kant’s first principle of justice is a proclamation of a universal right of external freedom. Mill’s Principle of Libery is straight libertarianism: people cannot be legitimately prevented from doing what they want to do except one one and only one condition – that what they do would impose a disutility (= harm) on others. (Locke, of course, says that the Law of nature requires us not to harm others in respect of their life, liberty, health, or possessions.) These are all really equivalent to the general libertarian principle.

How did you come up with The Libertarian Idea?

It was published, really, at the beginning of 1989 (though it says 1988 on the publication data sheet), and written largely at one very intensive stretch in the summer of 1987. I wrote it up because of two things: my acceptance of the contractarian idea (in Gauthier’s version, essentially – not John Rawls’), and my perception that Nozick’s book supplied no foundations for the libertarian view.

You’ve mentioned the “State like the fox guarding the hen-house”, and then you said Nozick’s book supplied no foundations for a libertarian view. What are the most relevant aporias in minarchist thought, and expecially in Nozick’s position?

Nozick has a very interesting argument for the minimum state arising out of anarchism, but it is flawed. His argument requires a premise that there is a natural advantage in numbers when it comes to defense. That is true, of course. However, it is not true that it is an advantage that must lead to a monopoly, and indeed, in his own argument the monopoly comes about by dirty pool, in the end. I argued, in The Libertarian Idea that if Nozick’s argument for the minimum state would work, it would also work for non-minimal state functions. (My example, which I have much regretted since, was the Canadian version of public health insurance. In fact, I think the premise I relied on is empirically false, and that’s true of Nozick’s argument too. Even in defensive matters, little guys can offer better service than big ones. Actually, that is already pretty well illustrated by the Mafia in North America!)

“Minarchist” theory seems to me enormously problematic. Where, exactly, is this minimum? Does it include management of streets as well as protection of persons and property? If it includes only the latter, would it, as in Nozick’s argument, preclude private protection? That would be a terrible mistake, as we know in retrospect – most protection of property in North America is by private police, not public. They do a better job and are a lot cheaper! In general, Nozick didn’t actually work out the theory of the minimal state very much, and I wonder if, perhaps, he would have regretted his advocacy if he had.

You said earlier: “But libertarianism cannot be conservative; the two are basically antithetical”. However, on a personal, cultural ground, is it impossible to think that a libertarian could be “conservative”, in the same sense as other libertarian could be Christian, vegetarian, homosexual, or whatever?

Oh, no – those are all matters of personal lifestyles, and of course libertarians can be as “conservative” as they please in those respects.

On political grounds, who are, if not conservatives, the natural allies of libertarians, from your point of view (assuming, of course, that libertarians have allies)?

One of the problems of political libertarians is that they have no good natural allies. Conservatives in America tend to be more liberal than “Liberals” on matters like tax policy, but of course they are the enemy when it comes to civil liberties. So-called “Liberals” are a general problem all around. They are about as improperly so-called as one could readily imagine — it’s amazing how this word got turned 180 degrees from its standard meaning! The problem with contemporary so-called Liberals is that they can’t understand or stick to the distinction of negative and positive rights. In their view, the negative right to participate in community and work, and so on, justifies public education, public welfare state systems, public health.

I admit to being very pessimistic about real-world politics. The grip of political democracy is tightening everywhere, and with it comes tyranny, great and small. Yet it is a juggernaut. The citizen walks into the polling place where all responsibility and all contact with reality disappears, and he walks out thinking he has now “ruled himself”. What a fraud! But so seductive!

A last question: Could you indicate 10 books (not more) that are fundamental to understanding libertarian ideas, and that could perhaps persuade young people to adopt a libertarian viewpoint?

Besides Nozick and (of course!) my book, I think of these:

  • David Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom.
  • Charles Murray’s little book, What is Means to be a Libertarian is wonderful, and very readable.
  • Murray Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty.
  • Ludwig von Mises’ Liberalism.
  • David Gauthier, Morals by Agreement. David still thinks he is not a libertarian, though I think he should be! But it’s a great book about fundamental moral theory.
  • Anthony de Jasay’s recent book, Social Contract, Free Ride, is slightly technical, but really excellent. Also the same author’s Choice, Contract, and Consent.
  • David Schmidtz, The Limits of Government.
  • On the practical side, James L. Payne, Overcoming Welfare (Basic Books, 1998)
  • On the theoretical side: David Ramsay Steele, From Marx to Mises—which will cure any thoughtful person willing to spend the effort of any tendency to think there is anything at all to Marxist or more generally socialist theory.
  • Randey Barnett, The Structure of Liberty.

Reading those will make a libertarian scholar out of anybody who will read them carefully.

Alberto Mingardi, the Laissez Faire City Times ace interviewer, lives in Northern Italy (Padania), and speaks English as a second language. He turned 17 this past year.