Friday, April 5, 2013

Steve Landsburg is no Libertarian

Steve Landsburg is an economics professor at the University of Rochester. He is also an author and a self-proclaimed libertarian. He recently got in hot water for a controversial blog post in which he essentially argues that rape is okay so long as the victim was unconscious at the time, does not remember it, and sustains no physical injuries. You can read it here:

This is the spot on satirical reply by the liberal website Slate:

This is the response from Bleeding Heart Libertarians (a great site, btw):

And this is my response:

I share BHL's dismay that this is what libertarianism is being associated with. Professor Landsburg is no libertarian, and as a libertarian it's important for me to explain why, just as a matter of pride.

1. Case B is different from A because Granola is not the only person in the world, and even if she does not go to the wilderness and her life isn't disrupted by it, other peoples' lives are. If the company owns the property on which they drill, and the effects of that drilling are contained solely to that property, those people have no case. But in a large number of cases, this is not true; private or public property is destroyed due to spillover effects, creating an infringement of other people's rights. Psychic distress over other people's rights' being infringed upon is more justifiable than psychic distress over people behaving in a way you don't like.

2. "As long as I’m safely unconscious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, why shouldn't the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits?" - Landsburg. It's understandable how an economist might feel this way; if "happiness" is measured purely in physical pain/pleasure, ignoring personal rights maximizes the pareto efficiency of physical pleasure in this case (the rapists got off by it, while the victim suffered no injuries). But net physical pain/pleasure is not how morality ought to be calculated. By that standard, even if the woman did sustain physical injury, in order to determine if the rape was moral, the extent of that injury would have to be measured against HOW MUCH THE RAPIST ENJOYED HIS RAPE! That absurdity needs no refutation. There are certain moral tenets of which the violation is a societal cost in itself. Libertarians believe there are only very few of these, and that they have to be applied with a consistent and logical identification of who has a right to what. Looking at porn is not one of them, because we do not own other people's computers. Defiling ones own private property is not one of them, because nobody owns that property but you. But violating another person's body without their permission is, because we do indeed own our own bodies.

3. The photon analogy is so preposterous I don't even feel the need to address it; yes, there is something extremely different between penetration with a photon and penetration with a penis.

4. It is possible that somebody could commit rape without harming anyone - this time. Perhaps the woman wakes up in her own bed alone and never even finds out she was raped - imagine she has no physical harm or mental distress whatsoever. But even in this case, if the rapist is found, he should go to jail, for the same reason we lock people up for attempted murder or for reckless endangerment or setting off a firework in a crowded parade: people who engage in these behaviors have decided to endanger the well being of those around them, and the only reason nobody was harmed was because they got lucky. The next time they act in this way, it's highly unlikely no damage will result. When he took the action, he knew it was likely that somebody would be harmed by this, and he did it anyway. Lock him up.

Ultimately, the underlying flaw in Landsburg's utilitarian moral philosophy is that he pretends there is no such thing as individual rights. He asserts that nobody has an unalienable moral claim to ownership of anything, not even their own bodies. This is the antithesis of libertarianism, because it collectivizes rights at the expense of the individual. If the only thing that matters for determining the morality of an action is weighing the expected net benefits vs. the net costs for society at large (however individual agents making the decisions choose to measure those costs and benefits), the majority can trample the individual. Agents can wield as much violence as they like on the cited justification of "greatest good for the greatest number." The result is that every individual is then subject to the whims of other people, and nobody winds up being free or happy. This is an inadequate moral framework (you can read my own proposed framework here).

I admire the willingness to challenge emotionally-driven customs or laws with no basis in reason or logic, but I don't think that's truly what Landsburg is doing here. I think he's looking for free publicity by saying something that deep down, he knows is absurd. I think he's playing semantics (not all "psychic distress" is interchangeable; some is more intense or more warranted than others) just to make people angry and cause a stir. I think he's being a blowhard - which is, of course, his right. But it's also my right to explain why he's full of it.


  1. You can find two responses to Landsburg's post on my blog, Ideas, one discussing the puzzle he raises, one attempting to answer it.

    I find your response, like many of the other outraged ones, indefensible. To begin with, Landsburg was posing a puzzle, not, as you seem to assume, offering an answer. You don't even seem to notice when the sentence you are quoting ends with a question mark. Being a libertarian does not require that one refuse to think about hard problems for fear one might not like the conclusion.

    And why we lock people up for unsuccessful murder attempts is itself an interesting puzzle, one you can find discussed in my _Law's Order_. As is how we figure out what rights people do or don't have.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. First, this is an unusual coincidence - literally 30 seconds ago, I typed and posted a response to your blogs after a friend had directed me to them, completely unaware that you yourself had commented on mine! I'm flattered that someone as prolific and respected as yourself came to my blog to leave his thoughts, rather than vice-versa.

      Secondly, if I refused to think about hard problems, I wouldn't have bothered addressing any of Landsburg's claims, or to leave comments on yours (which address some of the distinctions I omitted in this post). I even said I admired the "willingness to challenge emotionally-driven customs or laws with no basis in reason or logic." A propensity to dabble in socially unacceptable opinions, along with a preference for being right over being popular, are long libertarian traditions worthy of celebrating. If all Landsburg truly meant to do was make people articulate previously assumed justifications, then perhaps I was too harsh on him.

      However, it seemed to me upon my first reading that this was not all Landsburg sought to do. The specific reference to the Steubenville rape case made it appear as if Landsburg was arguing that ideologically consistent libertarians should oppose the conviction of the Steubenville rapists, because "hey, they didn't really hurt anybody, and they had a grand old time!". I felt this was antithetical to true libertarianism because, as I explained in my second to last paragraph, it collectivized rights in terms of the net pain/pleasure granted to society, rather than ensuring individual rights in terms of freedom. Furthermore, I was embarrassed that this position was what libertarianism was being associated with, and felt the need to set the record straight for people he might have turned away from the ideology.

      You mentioned the question I quoted, which reads "As long as I’m safely unconscious and therefore shielded from the costs of an assault, why shouldn't the rest of the world (or more specifically my attackers) be allowed to reap the benefits?". I took this as rhetorical question, designed to sway his audience to the position that the attackers should, indeed, be allowed to reap the benefits. Clearly many other people took it this way as well. If it was instead a genuine question, which he merely wanted honest help in answering because he could not do it himself, then he should have done a better job clarifying that.