Libertarianism and Asteroid Defense

Sasha Volokh’s post arguing that his version of libertarianism might not allow government spending to provide for asteroid defense has drawn predictable howls of outrage, including Brad DeLong’s claim that it proves that “libertarians are completely insane.”

One answer to such claims is that most other libertarian thinkers don’t agree with Sasha’s position. David Friedman, for instance, famously argued against it in The Machinery of Freedom, and Sasha himself notes Bryan Caplan’s contrary view. Caplan and Friedman are, of course, two of the most radical important libertarian scholars out there.

That said, I don’t think that Sasha’s view is necessarily ridiculous or “insane.” Any theory based on absolute respect for certain rights necessarily carries the risk that it will lead to catastrophe in some instances. Let’s say you believe that torture is always wrong. Then you would not resort to it even in a case where relatively mild torture of a terrorist is the only way to prevent a nuclear attack that kills millions. What if you think that it’s always wrong to knowingly kill innocent civilians? Then you would oppose strategic bombing even if it were the only way to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II. How about absolute rights to freedom of political speech? If you are committed to them, that means you oppose censorship even if it’s the only way to prevent Nazi or communist totalitarians from coming to power and slaughtering millions.

Many such scenarios are improbable. But over the long sweep of human history, improbable events can and do happen. Had Kerensky suppressed the Bolsheviks in 1917 (as he easily could have that summer) or had the Weimar Republic done the same with the Nazis, the world would be a vastly better place, even though most political censorship (even of evil ideologies) causes far more harm than good. A civilization-destroying asteroid attack during the next few hundred years is also a low-probability event.

Thus, the potential flaw in Sasha’s view is one that it shares with all absolutist rights theories. Scenarios like the above are one of the main reasons why I’m not a rights-absolutist myself. But I don’t believe that all the great moral theorists who endorse such views from Kant to the present are either ridiculous or “insane.”

It’s also worth noting that Sasha’s approach would in fact justify asteroid defense in virtually any plausible real world scenario. As he puts it, “if you could show that, once the impending asteroid impact became known, all hell would break loose and lots of rights be violated by looters et al. during the ensuing anarchy, I could justify the taxation as a way of preventing those rights violations; but this wouldn’t apply if, say, the asteroid impact were unknown to the public.” It’s highly unlikely that news of an impending asteroid impact whose onset was known to the government could be prevented from leaking to the general public. Even if it could, “all hell” would surely break loose after the asteroid impact, resulting in numerous violations of libertarian rights by looters, bandits, people stealing food out of desperation, and so on. Either way, Sasha’s analysis ends up justifying asteroid defense.

If I understand Sasha correctly, he’s only partially a rights absolutist. He doesn’t believe that you can ever sacrifice rights for utilitarian benefits, even truly enormous ones. But he does think that you can justify small rights violations as a way of forestalling bigger ones. Sasha is an absolutist when it comes to trading off libertarian rights for other considerations, but a maximizer when it comes to trading off rights for greater protection of those same rights in the future. Effective defense against a massive asteroid impact easily passes Sasha’s rights-maximizing test.

Obviously, I welcome correction from Sasha if I have misinterpreted his views.

UPDATE: Mark Kleiman responds to this post here:

Ilya Somin is right to point out that any theory that puts an absolute constraint on action runs into problems when inaction has catastrophic consequences. But if he really can’t see the difference between torture and income taxation – can’t understand why absolute opposition to torture is not analogous to absolute opposition to public spending on public goods – then “loopy” is entirely too weak a word.

I of course agree that torture of innocent people is worse than unjustified income taxation. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that’s true of torture of captured terrorists to extract information in order to prevent future attacks. Perhaps the latter should still be forbidden (e.g. for slippery slope reasons, or because torture isn’t actually effective in extracting needed information). But I don’t think it’s either “loopy” or obviously wrong to believe that it’s less bad than government violations of innocent people’s property rights and economic liberties. Even many nonlibertarians agree that stealing from the innocent is a greater wrong than at least some types of physical abuse of captured terrorists. Indeed, the majority of Americans believe that there should be very stringent limits to income taxation, while also believing that torture of terrorists is justified in at least some circumstances. So if that view is “loopy,” the loopiness is certainly not confined to libertarians.