Disputing Narveson – Round 2

After the publication of my recent article at anti-state.com, disagreeing with Jan Narveson on a point tangential to his excellent piece on Pure Libertarianism, Gene Callahan asserted in the ASC forum that a thief or robber was the kind of public goods defaulter which Narveson was talking about coercing and he offered this passage from an earlier piece by Narveson:

“The classic example of the public good in question is nonviolence. The assassin, the robber, the rapist, collect benefits from others without paying for them; the cost all is borne by the victim.”.

It had not occurred to me that Narveson was considering a robber or thief to be a defaulter in the context of a public good, but after reading the article that Callahan had pointed out it was clear to me that he was. I disagree that a thief can properly be considered to be a public good defaulter, but the dispute has been reduced from what might have been a disagreement in principle to a disagreement over how certain terms should used.

I emailed Narveson on this point, saying I did not see how a thief is a defaulter in a public goods problem. Narveson was kind enough to send me a thorough reply. I felt the issue still boiled down to one crucial statement he made in the email, he said that a public good a case where the producer of the good isn’t the one who gets it. I replied to Narveson:

“I would say that this is not what a public good is. A public good is a case where the producer of the good can’t control who gets it. But if we say that a thief is “producing peace” by not stealing from you, we recognize that he certainly has control over who gets the peace he is producing. The bad he produces when he steals from you is not a public bad, it is your private bad. And the good he would produce by not stealing from you is your private good.”

(I would not normally speak of a bad as opposed to a good, but Narveson had in is email so I followed his lead.)

Narveson was kind enough to reply again; he said that he didn’t see any difference between his characterization of a public good and mine. That doesn’t seem quite right to me, but I didn’t see any point in bothering him about it by email again.

I stand my my assertion that those who steal produce private bads for their victims, and therefore any good they produce when they don’t steal is a private good, not a public good. Narveson said to me that the victim of violence is unable to control the benefit of nonviolence, which is within the control of the aggressor. I’d point out that many producers of goods don’t get what they produce. The masseuse doesn’t get the massage she produces and the surgeon doesn’t get the operation he produces. But these are private goods because the producer determines who gets them. And I would say that the producers of non-violence certainly determine who gets any non-violence they produce – the people they choose not to aggress against.

Thus I think that Narveson is wrong about a thief being a defaulter in the context of a public good, and thus the argument in my article stands intact against what he said about public goods defaulters. But he was actually talking about something other than public goods; so our dispute is not a disagreement over principle.

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