Ofļ¬ce of Vocational
and Adult Education
Quality Control and
Ofļ¬ce of Womenā™s
Radio and TV Marti
Physical Medicine and
Ofļ¬ce of Worker and
Radio Free Asia
Ofļ¬ce of Workersā™
Ralph J. Bunche Library
Ohio Field Ofļ¬ce
Rare Book and Special
Plans, Policies, and
Policy Planning Staff
Real Estate Assessment
Postal Rate Commission
Presidentā™s Council on
Paciļ¬c Air Forces
Presidentā™s Council on
Research and Special
Rocky Flats Field Ofļ¬ce
Pantex Plant: Nuclear
Prints and Photographs
Processes and Prediction
Pasture Systems and
Rural Housing Service
Rural Utilities Service
Patent and Trademark
and Crop Assessment
Saint Lawrence Seaway
Program Support Center
Programs and Resources
A Matter of Principle, I: Betrayal of Personhood 95
Social Security Advisory
Savannah River Ecology
Special Projects Division
Staff Judge Advocate to
Science Reading Room
Secretary of the
State Compensation and
Secretary of State
State Justice Institute
Securities and Exchange
Stennis Center for
Select Committee on
Stennis Space Center
Trade Policy Staff
to the Peopleā™s
Republic of China
Selective Service System
Strategic Plans and
Senior Executive Service
Sensing and Systems
Study of the U.S.
Sergeant Major of the
Tribal Affairs Ofļ¬ce
Substance Abuse and
Ship Hull, Mechanical,
and Electrical Systems
University of the
United States Air Force
Simpliļ¬ed Tax and Wage
United States Botanic
United States Coast
Commission on Civil
United States Copyright
Working Out the Position
Wage and Hour
United States Trade
United States Court of
Appeals for the Ninth
Wallops Flight Facility
U.S. Air Forces in
United States Court of
U.S. Army Corps of
United States Court of
U.S. Coast Guard
Waste Isolation Pilot
U.S. Court of Appeals
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for the Armed
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United States Marine
United States Marshals
U.S. House of
United States Military
U.S. Patents Database
U.S. Preventive Services
United States Mint
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White House Ofļ¬ce
White Sands Missile
U.S. Trade and
United States Naval
White Sands Test
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Veterans Day National
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United States Secret
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Yucca Mountain Site
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A Matter of Principle, I: Betrayal of Personhood 97
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A Matter of Principle, Part Two
Personhood Writ Large
what is left?
Where on earth does the argument so far leave us? If, as I argued in the
previous chapter, socialistic states are morally unacceptable, and if like-
wise the welfare state, even when it ofļ¬cially recognizes the importance
of judgment, still violates peopleā™s personhood, what is left? Can we have
no state? Does the conception of personhood I have defended entail
anarchismā”and, if so, does that not constitute a reductio ad absurdum
refutation of it?
There are indeed many who would argue for anarchism, or some-
thing approximating it, on the basis of the premises I have defended.
Economists Bruce Benson, Walter Block, and Hans-Hermann Hoppe,
political theorists Anthony de Jasay, Fred Foldvary, and David Friedman,
law professors Randy Barnett and Robert Ellickson, and philosophers J. C.
Lester, Tibor Machan, Jan Narveson, and Robert Paul Wolff1 are among
those who have recently defended positions that approximate the anar-
chist or āanarcho-capitalistā view that the only legitimate form of social
organization is one that includes no coercive state. And numerous his-
torical ļ¬gures from many disparate disciplines have argued for similar
positions. There are in fact more defenders of this view than one might
think, especially given how little they are publicly discussed today; the list
of recent advocates above is but a fraction of the authors it would not
take you long to discover if you looked into it. I mention these thinkers
not because that settles the matter but rather to suggest that a view held
1 See the bibliography for information about these thinkersā™ works.
A Matter of Principle, II: Personhood Writ Large 103
by a large number of intelligent and thoughtful people and defended by
argument and evidenceā”not mere intuitionā”is not a likely candidate
for a reductio refutation. Just because it is new to you does not mean it is
absurd or without plausible foundation.
But I defend instead the form of government that draws on the tra-
dition running back through the Magna Carta, signed in 1215 by King
John of England, setting limits, even if principally in name, on his power
over nobles and freemen; through the Declaration of Arbroath, signed in
1320 by the nobles of Scotland, declaring its independence from English
rule and Robert the Bruce its rightful king, by which Americaā™s 1776
Declaration of Independence was partly inspired; through the English
Petition of Right in 1628, which reafļ¬rmed the principal state limitations
imposed by the Magna Carta, in particular the supremacy of duly enacted
laws to all men, including even the king; through the English Levellers of
the 1640s, who risked their lives to demand freedom of conscience and
individual liberty for all English freemen;2 through the 1689 English Bill
of Rights, reafļ¬rming the principles that no one is above the law and that
everyone is entitled to free speech and his own religion; through John
Locke in his 1690 Two Treatises of Government, in which he argued for the
ānatural rightā to equal freedom of all people, including slaves, as well as
the ānatural rightā to private property; through the eighteenth-century
Scotsmen David Hume and Adam Smith, who realized that the most
important thing for a government to do if it wants its citizens to ļ¬‚ourish
was protect private property and little else;3 and through Thomas
Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine,
and other American founders who drew on this āclassical liberalā tradi-
tion in realizing that a legitimate government would need to be rigorously
limited in scope and power to be consistent with respecting peopleā™s lives,
liberty, and propertyā”not to mention their sacred honor.
I suggest that the government that is consistent with respecting peo-
pleā™s personhood, all peopleā™s personhood, is one that refuses to privi-
lege one person or group above another, is skeptical about one person or
groupā™s ability to know the good for anyone else, and disallows one person
or group from coercing others into adopting beliefs, behaviors, or ends
against their will. This government works to secure people in their lives,
so that they can be free from murder and assault; in their liberty, so that
2 See Ottesonā™s The Levellers, esp. the Introduction to vol. 1.
3 For excellent historical discussions of the British aspects of this tradition, see Dumontā™s
Essays on Individualism, Macfarlaneā™s The Origins of English Individualism, and Pipesā™s
Property and Freedom, chap. 3.
Working Out the Position
they can work, exchange, believe, and associate as they judge ļ¬t in coop-
eration with others who also judge ļ¬t; and in their property, so that they
can be free from theft and fraud and can work to make life for themselves
and for those they care about better with a reduced risk that the fruits
of their endeavors will be taken from them. This government therefore
has as its sole aim to secure what was described in chapter 1 as ā˜justice.ā™
Anything above or beyond that is up to individuals themselves, alone or
in voluntary associations with others. To the question, then, of what is
left if socialism and welfare-statism are rejected because they violate per-
sonhood, the answer I offer is the simple, yet I believe inspiring, vision
of free and independent individuals who take no and brook no violation
of personhood, who thus meet each other as equals in personhood, and
who seek to provide for themselves and for those they care about a good
and happy life.
This classical liberal tradition is a long and venerable one, drawing as it
does on centuries of experience and the combined judgment of countless
thinkers. For an excellent overview, see Jim Powellā™s Triumph of Liberty,
which contains short biographies of more than sixty leading ļ¬gures of the
last two thousand years of this tradition. The political vision these brave
souls advocatedā”and many of them paid dearly, sometimes with their
lives, for their beliefsā”entails an individual freedom and responsibility
that can be bracing, but every human society that has striven for it has
also found it invigorating and enlivening.
On the other hand, the classical liberal society might not seem as
exciting as a Sparta under Leonidas, a Macedonia under Alexander, a
France under Napoleon, or a Germany under Bismarck: a ānation of
shopkeepers,ā as it has been called,4 where people, as Voltaire put it,
mainly tend their own gardens,5 might not ļ¬re the heart the way ļ¬ghting
and winning wars and territory, vanquishing heathens, or bringing Godā™s
wrath to the pagans might. It might, in other words, not allow sufļ¬cient
scope for the human drive to be grandly heroic, as some people have
objected. This is a fair point, inasmuch as humansā”some of them, at
leastā”really do seem to revel in conquering, vanquishing, appropriating,
and so on. According to the argument defended in the ļ¬rst two chapters,
however, unless acting in self-defense, all of that would constitute ļ¬‚agrant
4 Adam Smith ļ¬rst used this phrase to describe the liberal commercial society he recom-
mended in the Wealth of Nations (p. 613). Since then, some, such as apparently Napoleon,
have used it as a mocking epithet to denigrate societies that celebrate common people
instead of venerating āgreat menā (like Napoleon, of course).
5 In the ļ¬nal line of his 1759 Candide. See also Nockā™s essay āOn Doing the Right Thing.ā
A Matter of Principle, II: Personhood Writ Large 105
violations of othersā™ personhood. But aside from that, does the classical
liberal state not in fact offer opportunities to satisfy this drive? What
about entrepreneurship? Be the ļ¬rst person on earth to be worth one
hundred billion dollars; ļ¬gure out how to make faster-than-light travel
a reality, which some physicists now think might be possible after all;6
discover a new source of energy and bring it to market; and so on. There
are literally numberless possibilities for entrepreneurial innovation in
the classical liberal society, and there will be for the indeļ¬nite future. As
economist Julian Simon has argued, the ultimate natural resource is not
land or coal or water or even the sunā”remember that humans have had
all these things since the beginning, even when they did not use them
or know how to use them. Indeed, there are places today that are full of
natural resources but are still poor (such as Russia for the past several
decades), and others that have virtually no resources but are quite wealthy
(such as Hong Kong). So none of these natural resources is the āultimateā
resource. Instead, Simon argued, the ultimate resource is human ingenuity.
It is the resourcefulness of āpeopleā”skilled, spirited, and hopeful people
who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own beneļ¬t, and
inevitably they will beneļ¬t not only themselves but the rest of us as well.ā7
And as long as there are people around, that resource will not ever run out;
nor will it run out of need for it or opportunities to exercise itself. Such
entrepreneurial possibilities might, then, it would seem, offer continuing
opportunities for heroism, valor, and noble action.8
If that kind of innovative and competitive activity is not your cup of
tea, however, how about boxing or football? Or chess?
Two important implications follow from the fact that the ļ¬rst duty of
the state is, as I argued in chapter 2, to secure justice. The ļ¬rst is that
6 See, for example, http:/ /news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/781199.stm (accessed on
December 13, 2005).
7 The Ultimate Resource 2, p. 589.
8 An interesting side note is that Catoā™s Letters no. 65, written by Thomas Gordon in 1721,
argues that true martial valor can only be produced in a society under a government
limited in the ways I have described. The letter begins, āSir, I have shewn in my last
[letter], that trade and naval power are produced by liberty only; and shall shew in this
[letter], that military virtue can proceed from nothing else . . . ā (in Catoā™s Letters, vol. 1, p.
450). A fascinating recent account of the incredible ingenuity human beings can muster
to address problems they face is Erik Larsonā™s The Devil in the White City, which recounts
the efforts of Daniel H. Burnham and others in attempting to stage the 1893 Worldā™s Fair
Working Out the Position
if the state pursues anything beyond that, regardless of how good its
intentions or the ends to be served are, it contradicts and thus undercuts
its own reason for being. The core of the ā˜justiceā™ that the state must
secure is to protect each individualā™s personhood. As shown in chapters
1 and 2, that means that each person must have his person, his liberty,
and his legitimately acquired private property protected. To protect this
personhood, the state will have to have principally three things: (1) an
agency to make public rules about what counts as property, what counts
as transfer, what constitutes ownership, what the punishments are for
violation, and so on; (2) a system to adjudicate impartially the inevitable
disputes that arise among citizens, most of which will concern property
and contracts; and (3) defensive agencies to protect peopleā™s life, liberty,
and property and to enforce duly enacted punishments for the violation
of them. That prescription should sound pretty familiar: it is the essence
of what Americaā™s founders created to begin the United States of America,
and it constitutes the core of the classical liberal tradition on which they
drew to do so. Now the system of government entailed by respecting
personhood is not identical with that described in the U.S. Constitution:
other forms might satisfy it as well, and indeed the form described in
the Constitution might deviate from it in some details. The important
thing is that on this account the stateā™s sole reason and justiļ¬cation for
existing is to protect peopleā™s personhood by establishing, maintaining,
and administering the three duties that together constitute justice.
Suppose, however, by way of illustrating the limits this conception
places on state activities, that politicians decide that because some people
do not have the wherewithal to allow them to retire comfortably, a state-
run pension system must be set up to support people in their retirement
years. Put to one side for the moment the objection that such a system
would almost certainly end up, as virtually all such programs have, as a
Ponzi scheme that merely robs Peter to pay Paul, hence will inevitably
run out of Peters, and hence will inevitably collapse.9 Note instead that
9 Here is the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commissionā™s explanation of āPonzi schemeā:
āPonzi schemes are a type of illegal pyramid scheme named for Charles Ponzi, who
duped thousands of New England residents into investing in a postage stamp specula-
tion scheme back in the 1920s. Ponzi thought he could take advantage of differences
between U.S. and foreign currencies used to buy and sell international mail coupons.
Ponzi told investors that he could provide a 40% return in just 90 days compared with
5% for bank savings accounts. Ponzi was deluged with funds from investors, taking in $1
million during one three-hour periodā”and this was 1921! Though a few early investors
were paid off to make the scheme look legitimate, an investigation found that Ponzi
had only purchased about $30 worth of the international mail coupons. Decades later,
A Matter of Principle, II: Personhood Writ Large 107
precisely in robbing Peter it has violated his personhood: Peter was not
asked whether he wanted to contribute to Paulā™s retirement fund or how
much he wanted to contribute. If the government implements such a
policy, then, it systematically violates the personhood of those it forces
willy-nilly to pay for it. It also violates the personhood of those on behalf of
whom, also willy-nilly, it requires payment, for the recipients now are no
longer respected in their capacities to make decisions, take actions, and
face consequences for themselves. By thus undertaking such an endeavor
the state would act in violation of its own purpose and indeed would act at
cross-purposes to itself. It would in this way face the fatal problems raised
in chapter 2ā™s discussion of the welfare state.
This problem arises generally, that is, regardless of what the state might
decide to do other than secure justice. The problem is illustrated in
William Graham Sumnerā™s brilliant 1883 essay, āThe Forgotten Man.ā10
Sumner points out that āwhen we come to the proposed measures of relief
for the evils which have caught public attention,ā a curious phenomenon
often ensues, namely:
As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which X
is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to
remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall
do for X or, in the better case, what A, B and C shall do for X. As for A and B, who
get a law to make themselves to do for X what they are willing to do for him, we
have nothing to say except that they might better have done it without any law,
but what I want to do is look up C. I want to show you what manner of man he
is. I call him the Forgotten Man. Perhaps the appellation is not strictly correct.
He is the man who never is thought of. He is the victim of the reformer, social
speculator and philanthropist, and I hope to show you before I get through that
he deserves your notice both for his character and for the many burdens which
are laid upon him. (p. 202)
Sumner goes on to argue that C, the āforgotten man,ā is the poor stiff
who does everything right: he works hard, saves his money, lives within
the Ponzi scheme continues to work on the ā˜rob-Peter-to-pay-Paulā™ principle, as money
from new investors is used to pay off earlier investors until the whole scheme collapsesā
(http:/ /www.sec.gov/answers/ponzi.htm). Be sure also to read the SECā™s description of
āpyramid schemes,ā http:/ /www.sec.gov/answers/pyramid.htm (both sites accessed De-
cember 13, 2005). Although the SEC and the Federal Trade Commission vigorously
pursue the āfraudstersā who conduct such āfraudulent multi-level marketing programsā
in the business marketplace, they turn a blind eye to such programs that the government
itself runsā”such as Social Security, which, by the SECā™s deļ¬nition, counts as a virtual
paradigm case of both a āpyramid schemeā and a āPonzi scheme.ā
10 Contained in the collection On Liberty, Society, and Politics, pp. 201ā“22.
Working Out the Position
his means, meets his family obligations, and does not ask others to sup-
port him. Yet despite his virtueā”indeed, because of itā”he is systematically
punished by the activists who revile him for (1) having more than some
others, as he inevitably will, and (2) for being concerned primarily with
himself and his own. He is accordingly made to pay for others who have
not worked to cultivate the virtues he has. Sumner believes this to be
profoundly unjust to this āforgotten man.ā One might add to Sumnerā™s
charge of injustice that the activistsā™ policy is counterproductive because
it introduces incentives for even the once-industrious forgotten man to
stop working so hard: after all, if others get rewarded for not working,
and he gets punished for working, then only a fool, he might understand-
ably think to himself, would continue to work. And if enough of these
forgotten men stop working, then neither will there be the wherewithal
to relieve the āevilā āfrom which X is sufferingā nor will the forgotten
men themselves enjoy the fruits of their former labor that they once did.
So everyone would be worse off.
But we can see that Sumnerā™s charge of profound injustice is exactly
right. A and B are quite entitled by the scope properly accorded their
personhood under the General Liberty principle to undertake to help
X, but when they ask the state to coerce C (and D, E, F, and so on) into
doing so as well, as opposed to their trying merely to persuade C (and
D, E, F, and so on) to do so voluntarily, they ignore and dismiss Cā™s (and
Dā™s, Eā™s, Fā™s, and so on) personhood and therefore act unjustly. And in
complying with A and Bā™s wishes, the state abandons its prime duty and
indeed works against it.
The second important implication of the fact that the stateā™s only duty
is to secure justice is that taxation for purposes other than this single
one are also acts of injustice. The anarchists and anarcho-capitalists men-
tioned above will argue, with more justiļ¬cation than one might initially
think, that all taxation is illegitimate, in precisely the way that all slavery
is illegitimate. And they usually argue that taxation is at bottom a form
of slavery along the lines I sketched in chapter 2. I would like to argue,
however, that the minimal classical liberal state I have described is never-
theless defensible on two grounds: not only does historical investigation
suggest that this state is in fact the most conducive to human ļ¬‚ourish-
ing, and in particular to the ļ¬‚ourishing of individual human judgment,
but also, and perhaps more important, this is the only condition that all
persons require to pursue their ends, whatever their ends are. Whatever
their individual respective goods are, and whatever means they will ļ¬nd
to secure them, they will be able to do so only once justice has been
A Matter of Principle, II: Personhood Writ Large 109
secured, or has been secured to the extent possible given that it must be
implemented by fallible human beings. I therefore follow Hume, Smith,
and the classical liberal tradition generally in concluding that this is the
duty, but the only one, of the state. That would mean that the state is jus-
tiļ¬ed in taxing its citizens for the maintenance of the agencies required
for securing justice, which I suggest are those three described earlier,
and that taxation for anything else constitutes an unjustiļ¬able violation
An important objection must be addressed here. Previously, I argued that
taxation on persons was tantamount to forced labor, and hence unjusti-
ļ¬ed; here, however, I suggest that the state may, after all, tax to support
the institutions required to secure ā˜justice,ā™ and it may collect those taxes
coercively if necessary. Arenā™t these two positions inconsistent? How can
I have it both ways?
I take this to be an important problem. Before suggesting my proposed
solution, I would ļ¬rst point out that this objection underscores the cru-
cial moral importance of what I have called this bookā™s bedrock moral
principle, namely, the imperative to respect personhood: if a government
(or any other agency or group) does not respect personhood, then it has
to goā”period. If you agree with me on that, as I hope you do, then the
lionā™s share of my challenge in convincing you to support a minimal, lim-
ited government is already won. But let me now address the objection
squarely. I believe the classical liberal state can indeed be justiļ¬ed on
the following grounds: its purpose is to secure the conditions required
for the exercise of personhood, and it may do nothing else, since, as
I have argued, anything else would threaten or undermine those same
conditions. As I suggest above, the minimal protections of life, liberty,
and property can be supported and endorsed by all persons, regardless
of whatever their ends and purposes are, because these protections are
necessary to pursue any ends or purposes. Anything else a state would do,
however, will conļ¬‚ict with the ends or purposes of at least some persons.
Hence the classical liberal state is justiļ¬ed, but nothing beyond it is.
To summarize my argument, then: if I am right that (Premise 1) moral-
ity requires us to recognize each otherā™s ā˜personhood,ā™ if I am right that
(P2) this means observing ā˜justiceā™ in all our interactions with others, and,
ļ¬nally, if I am right that (P3) āobserving justiceā comprises respecting and
protecting each otherā™s life, liberty, and property, then (Conclusion 1)
Working Out the Position
the minimal classical liberal state is justiļ¬ed, (C2) nothing beyond this
state is justiļ¬ed, and (C3) it may tax its citizens to support it in this pro-
tection but for nothing else. I apologize for that somewhat schematic
formulation, but I want to be clear about where I end up and how I got
Two further objectionsā”one from each direction, as it wereā”will be
raised and should also be addressed. The ļ¬rst one is from the anarcho-
capitalists: if respecting personhood is your bedrock moral principle,
what about the person who does not want any government at all? That is,
what do you do about the person who in fact wants to have a go at securing
justice himself or by employing private protection agencies, and does not
want to pay the state for doing so? I think the answer to this objection
is, and must be: let him go. Respect for personhood entails that we must
respect peopleā™s decision to take even this extreme step. If he does not
want to pay taxes to the state to provide justice for him, he may opt out;
but of course he thereby also gives up the right to ask the state to save him
if things go south. Now this policy of allowing people to opt out could
potentially lead to the proliferation of free-ridersā”people opting out of
paying for state protections but enjoying them nonethelessā”but I think
we will simply have to allow that possibility and do our best not to let
them free-ride. Coercing them to subscribe to a state against their wishes
is more to be avoided because it certainly violates personhood; striving to
make sure potential free-riders are not able to free-ride has at least the
chance of not violating anyoneā™s personhood, and we should err on the
side of caution where personhood is concerned.
social power versus political power
The other main objection that will have occurred to you comes from the
welfare-statists and the socialists. It is that the classical liberal state might
be, as Samuel Fleischacker puts it, ābreathtakingly callous towards the
poor.ā11 Do the poor suffer especially under such a state? Are they left to
languish while othersā”the rich, perhaps, or the āpropertied classes,ā to
use a Marxian termā”are allowed to prosper? Are the poor left without
opportunities to improve or succeed because those already in the know
or already with some wherewithal have ļ¬rst access to the opportunities
and are able to exploit them before the poor have a chance? In short, by
11 A Third Concept of Liberty, p. 3.
A Matter of Principle, II: Personhood Writ Large 111
embracing the classical liberal state are we abandoning the least among us
and thus turning our backs on a signiļ¬cant part of our moral obligations?
In chapter 5 I shall present evidence showing that, contrary to what one
might expect, everyone, including in particular the poor, prospers under
states approximating the classical liberal one, and indeed that they pros-
per more under such states than under any other known kind. What kind
of government is most conducive to peopleā™s ļ¬‚ourishing is an empirical
question, after all, and it turns out that considerable empirical evidence
exists showing the close correlation between the classical liberal state
and increasing material prosperity, again especially among the poorest
of society. Since I have not yet presented that evidence, however, I do not
rely on it here. And in any case, since no state is perfect, even under the
best conditions there will still be people who face hardship and difļ¬culty
and need the assistance of others. However much we might be able to
minimize human suffering, we shall never eradicate it altogether, and
hence there will always be occasion to exercise our virtues of generosity
To restate the question, then, what can we do about the poor and
downtrodden in the classical liberal state? To answer this question let me
introduce a distinction exploited by Sir Henry Sumner Maine, Albert Jay
Nock, Franz Oppenheimer, Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner,
and others12 between social means and the correlated concept of social
power, on the one hand, and political means and the correlated concept of
political power, on the other. The idea is this. Roughly speaking, there are
just two ways to accomplish things in cooperation with others, using either
social means or political means. Social means are those that employ the
voluntary agreements of free and independent people and depend on
the resources developed and created by individuals working honestly for
them and earning them legitimately. Now by using the words āhonestlyā
and ālegitimately,ā I do not mean to beg any questions: all I mean is that
the resources were created, earned, or exchanged for without imping-
ing on or disrespecting anyoneā™s personhood at any stage. They are the
result of voluntary associations of people seeking to serve their local ends.
Included in the voluntary associations employing social power are all the
clubs, relief agencies, churches, charities, and other eleemosynary organi-
zations that people form to help others and to which they make voluntary
contributions out of their own resources.
12 See the bibliography for information about these thinkersā™ works. For a contemporary
account using this distinction, see Thomas Sowellā™s Applied Economics, chap. 1.
Working Out the Position
There has indeed been in the United States an astonishing array of
such organizations, despite the federal governmentā™s growing attempt,
at least since the 1930s or so, to assume their roles. David Beitoā™s From
Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services, 1890ā“
1967 provides an excellent discussion of those that existed especially
among black communities in the South, and his edited The Voluntary City
canvasses the surprising number and effective scope of such associations
even today. But the peculiar inclination of Americans to form such vol-
untary associations has a longer pedigree. It was noted, for example, by
Tocqueville in Democracy in America:
Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do
they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they
also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general
and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give
fĖ tes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to
send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons,
schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a
sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate. Everywhere that,
at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great
lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United
States. (vol. 2, pt. 2, chap. 5, p. 489)
By contrast to these instances of employing social means to effect
desired ends, political means are those that employ a coercive apparatus to
take money, goods, or services from one group of people, whether they
concur or not, and deliver them to another group of peopleā”or even
deliver them right back to the people from whom they were taken (after
the coercing agency has taken its cut). Instances of using political means
include all the government agencies providing welfare, relief, loan sub-
sidies, food, shelter, and so on. In America, the federal government is so
expensive and its services so extensive (see the Appendix to chapter 2)
that it can ļ¬nance its activities only by taking the bulk of its revenues from
the largest portion of its citizens, the middle class.13 That means that the
majority of Americans are today subject to the devices of political means.
Social means draw on āsocial powerā in the sense that it requires people
to take individual, personal initiative to help others. If a tornado ļ¬‚attened
13 Although it is often claimed that such programs are ļ¬nanced by the rich for the beneļ¬t
of the poor, in fact there are not enough ārichā to support all the programs; hence
the middle class, and even the poor, are made to ļ¬nance them themselves. A classic
presentation of this perhaps surprising reality is Bertrand de Jouvenelā™s The Ethics of
Redistribution, Lecture II.
A Matter of Principle, II: Personhood Writ Large 113
your neighborā™s house, you yourself must go and help clean up, buy
potable water, put him up in your own house, and so on. This power is
called social because it relies on the power that individuals voluntarily
working togetherā”that is, sociallyā”can generate. By contrast, political
means draw on āpolitical powerā in the sense that it uses force or the threat
of force to get people to comply. If the Federal Emergency Management
Agency arrives to help your neighbor with his tornado-ļ¬‚attened house, it
does not ask your permission to draw on your money to help and it does
not ask you your opinion about how to use that money; likewise, if it helps
out ļ¬‚ood victims a thousand miles away, it similarly does not hesitate to
take your money and use it as it sees ļ¬t. This power is called political
because typically it is only through politics that one group of people can
unilaterally command and use the resources of another group of people
without being jailed or shot for it.14
Given the nature of personhood as I have described it, however, and
given what respecting it entails, I suggest that employing political means
and political power for things such as poor relief or disaster relief is an
unjust violation of it. How badly the victims need the help or how good
peopleā™s ends are in using the resources thus extracted does not change
the fact that to take it involuntarily from others is to violate the latterā™s
personhood and to treat them, as well as the fruits of their judgment
and actions, as mere tools to your or someone elseā™s ends. That treats
them again as if they were thingsā”which they are not. If the man who
robbed you at the ATM used the money to pay for his childā™s life-saving
operation, it was still theft, it still violated your personhood, and it was
thus still wrong. If a person in such a desperate situation had merely asked
you for money, you might well have given it to him; that would have been
to respect both his and your personhood. But taking it from you against
your will, even for a good end, is a violation of personhood. The same
conclusion holds, I suggest, with the use of political means to make use
of peopleā™s lives, liberty, or property.
Now, opposing the use of political means for this kind of relief does not
mean, however, opposing all kinds of relief for those who need it. On the
contraryā”and this cannot be emphasized enoughā”it means only that
such cases as require the help of others are all matters of social means and
14 There are groups other than the state that use political means as wellā”the Maļ¬a and
other crime syndicates, muggers, rapists, and so onā”but their activities are usually illegal.
On the other hand, the operations of FEMA can sometimes resemble illegal extortion
and payoffs; see, for a recent example, the Washington Postā™s āReport Calls Payments by
Working Out the Position
social power. So the objection is only to the use of political means, not to
provision of help generally. My argument is that when help is required,
social means, and social means only, should be employed. People who
need help, families that need shelter, infants who need formula, children
who need operations, students who need scholarships, adults who need
a second chance, laid-off workers who need new job trainingā”in these
cases and any others like them, if help is required, then take action! Do not
wait for someone else to do it. Do not shift your personal moral respon-
sibilities onto distant agencies or unknown third parties and believe that
you have thereby fulļ¬lled your duty. If in any particular situation moral
responsibility attaches to the doing of something, then that responsibility
can be assumed only by individualsā”which means by you and me. So let
us roll up our sleeves and get to work.
That is the real import of the social power/political power distinction.
There is a fairly widespread view that advocates of a limited government
such as what I have defended are, in Fleischackerā™s words, ābreathtakingly
callousā toward those who need help. A former professor of mine once
mentioned that he could not respect people advocating a limited gov-
ernment because they are āindifferent to the sufferingā of others.15 I may
not ever be able to gain that professorā™s respect, but I want to make sure
that my position is plain: I am not indifferent to peopleā™s suffering, I am
not callous toward the poor, and, more to the point here, I do not think
the classical liberal state disrespects or disregards them. On the contrary.
As I mentioned earlier, in chapter 5 I show that a classical liberal state is
actually better for the poor than welfare states (or socialistic states). Here,
however, my argument is that in order to fulļ¬ll oneā™s moral obligations to
helping others, one must employ social means, not political means. That
does not mean turning your back on them. Indeed, it means facing them
full squareā”and yourself doing something about it. Go help clean up, go
buy formula and diapers and deliver them, write a check out of your own
account to help toward the tuition, start a learn-to-read program in your
garage, and so on. Here is yet another wide-open space for exercising your
entrepreneurial and imaginative genius: ļ¬nd out where help is needed,
and do what you can. My argument is that not only will you in this way
be respecting the personhood of everyone concernedā”your own, that
of the recipients, and that of unknown others from whom you will not be
15 For a recent repetition of this charge, see Rebecca M. Blankā™s āViewing the Market
Economy Through the Lens of Faith.ā For another, rather mean-spirited example, see
Brian Barryā™s review of Robert Nozickā™s Anarchy, State, and Utopia.
A Matter of Principle, II: Personhood Writ Large 115
taking resources to serve your endsā”but you will also be fulļ¬lling your
own moral responsibilities in the only way possible, by actually fulļ¬lling
Putting this responsibility on the shoulders of individuals, on your
shoulders and mine, has moreover the additional beneļ¬cial consequence
of making sure we are aware of the costs of taking actions. For some these
costs may incline them to adopt a callous indifference to othersā™ suffering,
but evidence supports the hunch that most people will take the opposite
tack of deciding to go ahead and help others: charitable donations tend
to go up, for example, when taxes are lowered. Requiring you and me
to make individual personal sacriļ¬ces does, however, encourage us to
start making the proper demands on those who solicit our help and to
make judgments about who should be supported, to what extent, and
exactly how. Some of those who ask for help, after all, simply do not
deserve it. The world is full of conmen, charlatans, and just plain lazy
bums who are more than happy to tug on our sentimental heart strings
for all they are worth, and milk us for all we are worth, to support their
corrupt or shiftless lifestyles. The real tragedy about such people is that
they can siphon funds that could and should have gone to someone
who truly needed it. Government welfare agencies are spectacularly bad
at distinguishing those who need and deserve help from those who do
not, but that should not surprise us: it is not their money, after all.16 But
precisely because it is your money and my money, you and I will have the
strong incentive indeed to separate the deserving from the undeserving,
to discover and help only the former while snifļ¬ng out and sending the
The classical liberal, then, is not by any means indifferent to the poor.
He claims only that the moral responsibility to help those who deserve
it attaches to individuals, not to the state, and thus that it falls within
the scope of social power, not political power. Respect for personhood
entails this schema of individual responsibility, even if it would be far
easier simply to tell those who deserve your help, āI already gave to the
state; take it up with them.ā The alternative method of relying on political
16 There is an enormous literature demonstrating the systematic, not just occasional, waste
of resources endemic to government programs. For a classic account, see Buchanan and
Tullockā™s The Calculus of Consent; for more recent discussions, see Bandowā™s The Politics of
Plunder, Sowellā™s Basic Economics, Tannerā™s The Poverty of Welfare, and Tullock, Seldon, and
Bradyā™s Government Failure. See also reporter John Stosselā™s ABC News Special, Freeloa-
(accessed December 13, 2005).
Working Out the Position
power has the effects not only of pitting people against one another in
their struggle to get their piece of the governmental pie and encouraging
potential helpers to see others merely as undeserving hangers-on, but also
of robbing people of the opportunity to take actions fulļ¬lling their own
individual moral duty.
Political power is justiļ¬ed only in the enforcement of justice. Every-
thing elseā”all the requirements of charity, benevolence, altruism, gen-
erosity, liberality, muniļ¬cence, and magnanimityā”are left to the discre-
tion, and duty, of individuals, to you and to me. If you want to save the
world, then, do not lobby Congress: give of your own time and money,
start your own charity (or your own business, for that matter), convince
others to join you in your efforts. Only in that way can you respect the
personhood of your would-be beneļ¬ciaries, of your would-be co-donors,
and, it should not go unnoticed, of yourselfā”for a person who violates
the personhood of others cannot but demean himself in the doing.
one ļ¬nal putsch: no such thing!
Let us look at one more objection to the classical liberal state I have
defended, this one from law professors Stephen Holmes and Cass R.
Sunstein. In their recent book The Cost of Rights, Holmes and Sunstein
claim not that the classical liberal state does not in fact respect person-
hood or that it does not in fact have the generally beneļ¬cial effects I have
suggested, but rather that there is really no difference between āneg-
ativeā liberty and āpositiveā liberty after all. What is their argument for
this counterintuitive claim? They begin with the unobjectionable premise
that rights cost money; that is, enforcing peopleā™s ānegativeā liberty has
costs, because one has to pay for the police or military to defend them,
for the courts and impartial judges to adjudicate disputes about them,
and so on. Therefore, conclude Holmes and Sunstein, there is no such
thing as purely ānegative liberty,ā all liberty is created and maintained by
the state, all ārightsā are merely provisionally held at the pleasure of the
state, and individuals can have no legitimate grounds on which to protest
that the state is violating their ārights.ā
Whoa there just a minute! How do those conclusions follow? The
answer is: they donā™t. The argument of Holmes and Sunsteinā™s book is
constituted by one reasonable claimā”enforcing rights costs moneyā”and
then a seemingly endless series of non sequiturs. Yes, enforcing rights,
or the freedoms you are entitled to under the General Liberty princi-
ple entailed by your personhood, is, or can be, costly. But it does not
A Matter of Principle, II: Personhood Writ Large 117
follow from that that you have only such rights as you can pay for (is
there no such thing as an unenforced right?), that the state alone creates
rights (what about, for example, the Declaration of Independence, which
claims that government is instituted among men to enforce pre-existing,
or ānatural,ā rights?), that only the state is justiļ¬ed in protecting rights
(may one not employ self-defense, then, before the police arrive?), that
only the state is able to protect rights (again, what about self-defense, or
the American Revolutionary War, for that matter?), or that since the state
currently undertakes to defend rights it is justiļ¬ed in taxing for whatever
it deems ļ¬t (so there can be no such thing as justiļ¬ed civil disobedienceā”
ever?). Some of Holmes and Sunsteinā™s conclusions might turn out to be
plausible, but, despite what they assert, none of them simply follows from
the fact that protecting rights costs money.17
One central thesis of Holmes and Sunsteinā™s warrants individual treat-
ment. They assert that all rights are āpositive,ā and that there is no real
distinction between alleged ānegativeā rights and āpositiveā rights. Their
evidence for this is that there are marginal cases where it is difļ¬cult to
say what kind of right they are; for example: āthe right of legislative ini-
tiative, the right not to be denied a job because of sexual preference, the
right to return to a job after taking unpaid maternity leave, the right to
interstate travel, freedom of testation, and the right to inform authori-
ties of a violation of the law.ā18 Moreover, they claim, in America today
it is one and the same government that protects both kinds of rights. To
the ļ¬rst point: although Holmes and Sunsteinā™s āramshackle inventoryā
(their words, not mine: see p. 39) is indeed bewilderingly drawn upā”one
might suspect that they are intentionally trying to muddy the watersā”I
think that the āpositiveā/ānegativeā distinction nevertheless makes con-
siderable headway in sorting it out. The notion of having sovereignty over
your own life, liberty, and property and having the ānegativeā freedom to
do with those things whatever you like consistent with everyone elseā™s hav-
ing the same freedom provides a simple and plausible criterion by which
to categorize most of the ārightsā Holmes and Sunstein list. Even putting
that aside, however, the bare existence of difļ¬cult marginal cases does not
imply that there are not nonetheless clear examples of each respective
kind. As I argued in chapter 1, it is sometimes difļ¬cult to say whether a
given particular specimen counts as a āboyā or as a āman,ā but that does
17 See also Hocuttā™s āSunstein on Rights.ā
18 The Cost of Rights, p. 38. Holmes and Sunstein give numerous other examples as well; see
all of the ļ¬rst chapter, āAll Rights Are Positive.ā
Working Out the Position
not mean there are no such things as boys, that there are not clear, unam-
biguous examples of boys, or that all boys are really men; there will be
cases in which people of good faith will have trouble deciding whether a
given particular specimen counts as a āsaplingā or a ātree,ā but again that
does not mean that there is no such thing as a sapling, that there are not
clear, unambiguous examples of saplings, or that all saplings are really
trees, and so on. Similarly, it is perfectly reasonable to distinguish a state
protecting people from aggression from one providing people beneļ¬ts,
even if there are some cases of āprotectionā that are hard to distinguish
from ābeneļ¬tā and vice-versa.
To the second point: a single entity can of course attempt to protect
either ānegativeā or āpositiveā rights, or neither, but that is irrelevant to
the question of whether or not there are ānegativeā rights. The fact that
the state in America currently undertakes to enforce all sorts of āpositiveā
rights has no bearing on whether it should do so or whether it is justiļ¬ed
in doing so. Moreover, Holmes and Sunstein do not consider the argu-
ment raised earlier that all actions within the scope of ānegativeā liberty
are compossible, whereas those within the scope of āpositiveā liberty are
not: that seems a clear distinction between them, and a good at least ini-
tial reason to believe both that ānegativeā liberty is not simply a ļ¬gment
of several hundred yearsā™ worth of peopleā™s imagination and that it is
not incoherent to criticize a state for overstepping its legitimate bounds
by not respecting only ānegativeā liberty. The notions of ānegativeā and
āpositiveā liberty are, to borrow the terminology of French philosopher
RenĀ“ Descartes (1596ā“1650), both clear and distinct: their respective con-
tent seems clear, and the differences between them render them distinct
from one another. Merely asserting that one exists and the other does
not therefore cuts no ice.
I might add that The Cost of Rights repeatedly disparages classical lib-
eralism, dismissing it as a āļ¬ctionā and charging that it is unrealistic, but
Holmes and Sunstein never take up the arguments or evidence offered
on behalf of the position, and they ignore the entire historical tradition
that classical liberalism draws on and embodies. They call its supporters
names, they suggest that no āseriousā thinker entertains the idea any-
more (an amazing claim, especially given that Richard Epstein, one of
the foremost defenders of this tradition todayā”and certainly a serious
thinker if there ever was oneā”is a member of the same law school fac-
ulty as Sunstein), and they proceed to make their own case using the
argument-by-avalanche method wherein they seem to believe that if they
just assert that their view is true enough times then eventually you will
A Matter of Principle, II: Personhood Writ Large 119
assent out of sheer exhaustion. The argument of Holmes and Sunsteinā™s
book is thus quite unpersuasive, even if it has been inļ¬‚uential (Sunstein
is considered one of the leading legal academics in America today, often
appearing on television, for example). I hope that what you have read
so far in this book will give you reason to consider the classical tradition
more seriously than Holmes and Sunstein are willing to do, even if you
end up rejecting it as well.
making friends and inļ¬‚uencing people
My argument, then, is that only the limited, āclassical liberalā state is con-
sistent with respecting peopleā™s personhoodā”all peopleā™s personhood,
not just that of the āintellectualsā or the āexpertsāā”and that this concep-
tion of the state enjoys the support of a long intellectual and historical
tradition. In response to worries about what kind of condition that leaves
ā˜the least of usā™ in, I have argued that social power should be pursued on
their behalf, not political power, because only social power is consistent
with their personhood. Finally, I suggested that this kind of state may hold
the key to general prosperity; in the next chapter I offer an explanation
for why social power, or private enterprise, is in fact a more promising
means to satisfy our desires than state provision of them will be.
What, however, does this conception allow us by way of changing peo-
pleā™s behavior? If people are greedy, selļ¬sh, or otherwise vicious, if they
engage in self-debasing activities, or if they do not take proper regard for
the consequences of their actions, what avenues do respect for person-
hood and the classical liberal state allow us to pursue? I brieļ¬‚y addressed
this matter in chapter 1, but it is worth mentioning here John Stuart Millā™s
felicitous list of several of the available options. In On Liberty, Mill says
that if you ļ¬nd that a person is being any of these things,
These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or
persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him
with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which
it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else.
The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society,
is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his
independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind,
the individual is sovereign. (p. 13)
If the person in question violates justice, in other words, then we are
justiļ¬ed in āvisiting him with evil,ā but only then. If we wish to change his
Working Out the Position
conduct in matters dealing with virtue and vice, only the use of rhetorical
weapons is consistent with respecting him as a person.
One great virtue of the classical liberal state that warrants underlin-
ing is a consequence of the principle of General Liberty, and provides
another way to address societyā™s moral failings. The principle of General
Liberty allows people to pursue many different paths; it also allows people
to make associations with others who are of like mind. Thus not only are
poor-relief societies, philanthropic associations, salvation societies, and
moral uplift unions of all manner and stripes allowed, but so are coop-
eratives, communes, theocracies, and even socialist communitiesā”such
as Robert Dale Owenā™s 1824ā“7 New Harmony, Indiana.19 Want to estab-
lish a community in conformity with your religious or political or moral
views? Go right ahead. Fancy abolishing private property and enforcing
strict equality? Feel free. Are you a bohemian wanting to found an art
colony? By all means. A homosexual or free love or nudist community?
Amish? Puritan? Anti-technology Luddite? Yes, yes, yes, and more power
to you. As long as no one is forced to join or support any of these ventures,
they are all perfectly consistent with the classical liberal state. Indeed, it
is a fair bet that they would ļ¬‚ourish in such a state like nowhere else
as people successively investigate various ways of living; historically it has
always been the freest societies that were the most vibrant (not to men-
tion wealthiest, which helps considerably). And since people who dislike
or disagree with you are not forced to go along with you, they have no
right to stop youā”just as you have no right to stop them in their pur-
suits. They might try to change your mind, as you might theirs, but at
the end of the day we can all go home and disagree in peace. The wide
scope of possibility and human diversity the classical liberal state allows
is indeed one of its greatest virtues. (And it should not go unnoticed that
one would not be allowed to form a New Freedom classical liberal com-
munity within a socialist state.) You can therefore also address societyā™s
failings by creating your own subsociety: found a community according
to your lights, and use your social power to encourage others to join it.
That is an easier, and perhaps also more effective, way of realizing your
goals than trying to remake all of society according to your plan. And you
might ļ¬nd that it answers your need to conquer, vanquish, and act hero-
ically, only in this case with innovative, imaginative, and rhetoricalā”not
19 For discussion of Owenā™s New Harmony project, see Bethellā™s The Noblest Triumph,
A Matter of Principle, II: Personhood Writ Large 121
political exceptions to justice?
What I hope to have given here are fundamental principles that can
enable us to negotiate and make judgments about most of the problems
and issues usually thought to fall under the scope of āethicsā or āmorality.ā
In chapters 6 to 9, I address several of these other areas and I lay out how I
think these principles apply. Before closing the discussion of āprincipledā
reasons to support the classical liberal state, however, I would like to make
another important point. In the Preface I remarked that there is often a
signiļ¬cant disconnection between private morality and public, or publicly
endorsed, morality. Here we can perhaps bring out an important instance
of this disconnection.
You may have been taken aback at my suggestion that, on the one hand,
people should be allowed to engage in activity we all know is wrong or
foolish, and, on the other hand, that people should be left to face the con-
sequences of their decisions, even if they are bad or degrading or cause
suffering. But even if that offends your sensibilities, I would bet the farm
that that is precisely what you do and believe, though perhaps implicitly,
in your own life. If the person next to you on the bus is riveted with an
assemblage of metallic accoutrements that make you thinkā”privately, to
yourselfā”something like āWhatā™s wrong with that guy?ā you do not decide
he should be apprehended and forcibly taken in for moral re-education,
do you? Well, why not? Or if your co-worker is wasting all her income on
bad movies and gambling rather than on John Ford movies and great
books, you do not forcibly take over management of her ļ¬nances. Again,
why not? Because it is none of my business, you say. Precisely. Other peo-
ple should enjoy the same freedom of judgment that you do, even if they
use that freedom unwisely. If you know that your neighbor sits at home
by himself every night getting drunk, you may feel sorry for him, you may
even try talking him into getting some help; but you do not break down
his door and bodily haul him into a treatment clinic. If your friend drives
a big SUV that you are certain she does not need for herself and her one
child, while you can afford only a small, cramped sedan for yourself and
your three children, do you go to her and demand that she stop wasting
her money on herself and instead give it to you? If you know someone
who is working for a company that you think does not pay him enough
for what he does, do you get your friends together, march over to the
companyā™s management, and inform them that if they do not pay him
more you will begin a campaign of theft and assault on the companyā™s
property? Or inform your friend that you will not let him work there
Working Out the Position
anymore and will if necessary physically prevent him from doing so? If a
relative of yours decides to have risky plastic surgery, now for the twelfth
time, and you think it is absurdly vain and wasteful of her to do so, do you
inform her that if she tries to go through with it you will have to lock her
up in your basement for a period of time, and that you will do the same
to any plastic surgeon who agrees to perform the operation? Of course
you do not do these things; you would not even consider them. Again,
My argument has been predicated not on the belief that people make
decisions well, but rather that they are able to make them at all. And you
may have noticed that the areas where you already believe people should
be left free and unmolested to make their own decisionsā”although not
necessarily free of your informing them of your disapproval!ā”are pre-
cisely the areas covered by our ā˜justiceā™ as deļ¬ned above. You let them
decide what to do with their lives, with their liberty, and with their prop-
erty. On the other hand, if they begin impinging on other peopleā™s lives,
liberty, or property, then you will think you are indeed justiļ¬ed in taking
action. The same point is made by looking at it from this other side: you
do not personally assault or imprison, steal from, or make false promises