Why We don’t have War Every Time We Disagree

This is part 2 of a multi-part series presenting a praxeological theory of the origin and character of law. Part 1 here.

Morality can be thought of as the art of choosing right ends. I think it’s safe to say that most people choose their own ends without a great deal of introspection. But among those who do introspect and opine on morality, there is almost universal agreement that the choice of right ends cannot be based solely or even primarily on one’s own desires irrespective of social well-being. This is the central tenet of collectivism, which is the prevailing moral sentiment today and has been for a very long time.

But the only sense in which an end can be right as opposed to wrong is the extent to which that end is a means to the ultimate end which every acting being has: satisfaction of wants. Satisfaction of wants is only apprehended subjectively.

… As a passive being [man] experiences sensations that are painful or pleasurable. As an active being he strives to banish the former and multiply the latter. The result, which affects him again as a passive being, can be called satisfaction. [Emphasis original]

Frederic BastiatEconomic Harmonies

If I choose a particular course of action it is because I believe I am right to do so, that it is to my best and highest benefit to follow this course of action. And the same is equally true of another person who has chosen a course of action which conflicts with mine. Hence, we are not only involved in a dispute but we are each convinced, “I am the one who is in the right, I have the right to do as I’m doing and you are interfering with my rights.” I think this explains why normal people take legal disputes so personally.

Let’s set aside the matter of right and wrong for now and focus on the real issue which is the fact of conflict. Regardless of who is right or wrong, the problem is that the means I am employing to bring about my chosen end is obstructing the means you are employing to bring about your chosen end. In other words, I can only be happy by frustrating you. Disputes arise whenever the chosen ends of two individuals are mutually exclusive and, thus, come into conflict.

If I’m living in a very primitive society and I get into an argument with one of my fellow men, what happens? There are no judges and may not even be a chief we can appeal to. So what do we do? One option is to fight. But if my opponent is much bigger than me, I will almost certainly defer to him rather than fight him. If I am much bigger than my opponent, I will gladly fight him and probably win. But if you take any two men at random, they will be about the same size, strength and ferocity with high probability because most humans are close to the average. I will probably be about as afraid of the person I am in a dispute with as he is of me. We each are going to be wary of the other.

“There cannot be social order without the cattle-prod of the prospect of violent conflict driving disputants to arbitrate their disputes”

Since we’re human, we can do something that other animals can’t: we can speak and reason. It might consist of a mix of shouting and posturing with reason but that is much better than getting my skull bashed in over whatever it was we were arguing about. If we resolve our dispute without further violence, then we have succeeded in a kind of cooperative voluntary exchange. We both agreed together to exchange our present circumstances – fight/standoff – for a better set of circumstances – bargained settlement. I would rather give up a little of my sustenance to avoid the uncertainty and risk of being involved in a man-to-man battle where I might get to keep everything or I might just lose everything.

This is a crucial point because it explains how both parties to a dispute are better off, even though it might superficially appear that the party who was in the wrong – and, thus, has to pay – loses out. Because he agreed to the terms of settlement voluntarily, we can be sure that he believed that settling was preferable to remaining in a state of open conflict. Hence, both parties are better off as a result of settling the dispute.

The cooperative nature of the settlement decision is the essential difference between the kind of exchange that occurs as a result of dispute-resolution and ordinary voluntary exchange (catallactic exchange). In ordinary voluntary exchange, each decision-maker is completely autonomous and his decision to exchange or not exchange is determined solely by internal factors within himself. But it is very difficult to get even two people to make one choice that they both agree is the best for the both of them taken together. Each party wants to keep everything and give up nothing. The prospect of violent conflict if the issue is not settled – and the uncertainty regarding the outcome of such a conflict – drives them to bargain with one another. There cannot be social order without the cattle-prod of the prospect of violent conflict driving disputants to arbitrate their disputes. Thieves would simply keep the proceeds of their theft and the social order would necessarily disintegrate.

Continued in Part 3.

Clayton -

About these ads

7 thoughts on “Why We don’t have War Every Time We Disagree

  1. [...] Continued in Part 2. [...]

  2. wheylous 12/17/2012 at 09:04 Reply

    “Because he agreed to the terms of settlement voluntarily, we can be sure that he believed that settling was preferable to remaining in a state of open conflict. Hence, both parties are better off as a result of settling the dispute.”

    Hm, but what if we apply this analysis to the state and a taxpayer?

    The state wants taxes, the taxpayer doesn’t want to pay them. The state threatens with guns, and now the taxpayer decides to “settle” by paying the taxes.

    Certainly, he has “voluntarily” chosen to give up the money rather than being killed, and this shows that he prefers to be stolen from rather than caged up.

    But it appears that applying your analysis in this situation makes your point seem moot, since any arrangement where one person gives up under the threat of violence would be seen as “negotiation.”

    • claytonkb 12/17/2012 at 12:14 Reply

      But note that this is preceded by the discussion of -wariness- in the average case. If Alice and Bob go to arbitration and Alice is completely invulnerable to Bob and Bob is completely at Alice’s mercy, then yes, it’s unlikely that the outcome will reflect Bob’s voluntary choice in any way. I have an upcoming post that will address that situation, what I call “The Bully Problem.” So, some kind of wariness, some kind of reluctance to go to battle on the part of -both- disputants is a pre-condition for a specific arbitration to reflect the voluntary choices of both participants.

      The trouble with government courts is that this is basically -never- the case. Nearly every case that comes before the court is of the nature of one party being in an overwhelming advantage – as a result of statutory privilege – over the other party. This is presented as “necessary” to make sure that the matter is brought to law and settled peacefully but this is a Hobbesian distortion. Leviathan makes “peace” in the same way a slaveholder makes “peace” between his slaves.

  3. Etjon Basha 12/17/2012 at 11:28 Reply

    “There cannot be social order without the cattle-prod of the prospect of violent conflict driving disputants to arbitrate their disputes.”

    But how could we than explain ordered social interaction in virtual transactions. There is little than anyone can do to harm me if I decide to cheat on EBay, or perhaps even if I decline to pay me credit card. Wouldn’t than such transaction be impossible?

    I propose that what makes for ordered social interaction in the discipline of repeated dealings: I may need you tomorrow, hence I will refrain from abusing you today, even if I can physically overpower you and/or your friends each and every time.

    But for this point, great article.

  4. claytonkb 12/17/2012 at 12:08 Reply

    Repeated dealings is a separate, related mechanism. Basically, violence is the “outside limit”… it’s as bad as things can get. Ostracism or some other reputation retaliation is a milder form of retaliation. Both violence and ostracism – among other things – are undesirable outcomes. The key point is that the legal standoff is not inherently lop-sided – and does not need to be – in order for both parties to have an incentive to resolve their dispute. In fact, it is in precisely the cases where the standoff is lop-sided (the case that Wheylous is asking about) that any outcome is unlikely to be just, that is, to reflect the voluntary choice of -both- disputants.

  5. [...] This is part 3 of a multi-part series presenting a praxeological theory of the origin and character of law. Part 2 here. [...]

  6. [...] a four-part series presenting a praxeological theory of the origin and character of law. Parts one, two and [...]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 333 other followers

%d bloggers like this: