From The Freeman, December 1997, Vol.47, No.12, pp.733-737.

by Wendy McElroy

The Hobbesian contention that an almost biological conflict of interests exists between human beings, who must compete for the scarce goods necessary for survival, is a key stumbling block for those of us who espouse natural rights theory. Certainly, it is a common avenue of attack used by natural law critics. How, they demand, in a Hobbesian state-of-nature in which one man's life requires the death of another can it make sense to speak of a natural right to life, liberty, or any other commodity? Nature herself seems to argue against the possibility.

The goal of such an attack is to reduce natural rights to a code of morality that is divorced from the nature of man and of reality. Yet these are precisely the two foundations upon which any useful principle addressing human action must rest. Few contemporary thinkers devoted more energy to praxeology -- the study of human action, and its underlying principles -- than Ludwig Von Mises. In his touchstone work, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, Mises suggests an ingenious approach by which natural rights theory is strengthened by a Hobbesian worldview, rather than destroyed by it.

Mises and Reversing the Hobbesian Argument

In Part Four of Human Action, entitled "Catallactics or Economics of the Market Society", Mises speaks of how economic cooperation within society springs directly from a Hobbesian state-of-nature. Indeed, he presents 'a war of all against all' almost as though it were a prerequisite for the evolution of a market society. Under the section heading "The Harmony of 'Rightly Understood' Interests", Mises argues: because "many people or even all people want", these items become the focus of large-scale production which makes shoes more widely available at lower costs than private production could provide. He concludes, "The fact that my fellow man wants to acquire shoes as I do, does not make it harder for me to get shoes, but easier...The catallactic competition of those who, like me, are eager to have shoes makes shoes cheaper, not more expensive."(1)

Summing up the general implications of this insight, Mises concludes: "What makes friendly relations between human beings possible is the higher productivity of the division of labor. It removes the natural conflict of interests. For where there is division of labor, there is no longer question of the distribution of a supply not capable of enlargement....the intensification of social cooperation becomes paramount and obliterates all essential collisions. Catallactic [or economic] competition is substituted for biological competition."(2)

To those versed in Austrian economics, the preceding passage may seem to be an almost trite statement of the beneficent influence of the division of labor upon the availability of cheap goods. But Mises derives a deeper message from the social dynamic. "The very condition from which the irreconcilable conflicts of biological competition arise--vis., the fact that all people by and large strive after the same things--is transformed into a factor making for harmony of interests....This is the meaning of the theorem of the harmony of the rightly understood interests of all members of the market society."(3)

The 'irreconcilable conflicts of biological competition' themselves lead directly to, and perhaps even create, the 'rightly understood' harmony of interests between human beings.

Through this ingenious logic, Mises reverses the usual conclusion of state-of-nature critics. It is precisely because man lives in a Hobbesian world that a market society naturally arises. Instead of killing each other to secure the means of survival, human beings naturally cooperate out of pure selfishness for no other reason than that a market society offers otherwise unimaginable access to cheap goods. As a far more peaceful arrangement, the market society also provides the stability necessary for human beings to make long-range plans, such as those implied by raising a family.

In essence, Mises uses the division of labor as a principle of resolution -- that is, as a problem solving device. The problem is mankind's war-of-all-against-all which, many philosophers assure us, dooms our species to live in constant violence. But through the division of labor, this Hobbesian conflict of interests can be, and naturally is resolved. The resolution through cooperation reduces the likelihood of real biological conflict among human beings to a minimum. In essence, Mises reveals that social cooperation is a vastly more efficient means to achieve selfish desires than social conflict.

Principles as Problem Solving Devices

The idea that social principles are actually principles of resolution, or problem solving devices, was proposed several decades earlier by the 19th century individualist Benjamin R. Tucker. Tucker first raised the issue while considering the question 'what is property?' Specifically, he wondered 'what is intellectual property?'

On one side of what evolved into a heated debate, advocates of copyright and patent argued that intellectual property was wealth whose ownership had been acquired either through discovery or through labor. Lysander Spooner, for example, defined property as, "...wealth, that is possessed--that has an owner; in contradistinction to wealth, that has no owner, but lies exposed, unpossessed, and ready to be converted into property, by whomsoever chooses to make it his own."[Emphasis in the original] [21]

But several aspects of 'intellectual property' bothered Tucker. For example, how could one claim ownership of an intangible, or transfer that ownership? Such considerations led Tucker to address the question 'what is property?' in more philosophical terms. He asked why the concept of property had originated within human society in the first place.

The logic behind Tucker's fundamental question was his belief that concepts were problem solving devices. That is, he believed ideas arose within man and persisted within society only because they served a need, they answered a question. As an illustration of this theory, consider a universe which is parallel to our own but which runs along different metaphysical rules. The inhabitants of this alternate universe fill their needs simply by wishing for goods or other forms of satisfaction. Food magically appears in their hands, clothes miraculously drape their limbs, and a bed pops into existence under their tired bodies. In such a society, it is unlikely that the concept of money would evolve, simply because that peculiarly human concept arose as a means to solve the problems of transferring and storing wealth -- problems that exist in our universe, but not in the parallel one.

Tucker used the same problem solving approach to analyze the concept of property. He asked: what is it about the nature of our universe and the nature of man which gives rise to the concept of property in the first place?

Tucker concluded that property arose as a means of solving conflicts caused by scarcity. In our universe, almost all goods are scarce, and this leads to an inevitable competition among human beings for their use: a Hobbesian state-o-nature, if you will. Since the same chair could not be used in the same manner at the same time by two individuals, it was necessary to determine who should use the chair. The concept of property resolved this social problem. The owner of the chair should determine its use. "If it were possible," wrote Tucker, "and if it had always been possible, for an unlimited number of individuals to use to an unlimited extent and in an unlimited number of places the same concrete thing at the same time, there would never have been any such thing as the institution of property."[23]

Here, again, the state-of-nature argument has been re- versed. The Hobbesian worldview, rather than destroying the possibility of property, is precisely what gives rise to the concept. Property rights are problem solving devices.

Combining Mises and Tucker

How do the insights of Ludwig Von Mises and Benjamin Tucker apply to natural rights? In Human Action, Mises argues that irreconcilable biological conflicts between human beings can lead -- and may naturally lead -- to a state of cooperation. But what is the intervening step, or mechanism, through which human conflict is resolved into human cooperation. In the pages of his 19th century periodical Liberty, Tucker argues that principles, that ideas themselves, are problem solving devices which arise to address man's needs, including such competing needs as the desire for scarce goods.

How does this general statement apply to specifically claimed rights? Consider the specific natural right known as freedom of speech.

Human beings seek society because it provides them with great benefits, not only in terms of material goods and emotional sustenance, but also in terms of information and knowledge, both of which are necessary to life. Useful information can be extremely difficult to obtain since the truth, falsehood, or utility of ideas are not as intuitively obvious as the ripeness or rottenness of an apple. History is replete with absurd ideas that eventually proved to be true.

Obtaining knowledge is made more difficult by the fact that no one has a monopoly on truth or insight. And no one knows how useful any particular idea may eventually prove to be. For example, when mathematicians invented the imaginary number [i], the square root of -1, they were thrilled by this entirely abstract construct. Electrical engineers were also thrilled. Little did mathematicians suspect that the concept of [i] was the missing and invaluable tool to describe how alternating currents flow through a circuit. The utility of any idea can be judged only with reference to the user's unique, subjective purpose.

Given that information and knowledge are necessary to life, the question becomes: how do human beings maximize the chances of obtaining this survival good? One alternative is allow only true or valid statements and arguments to circulate, but this presupposes an absolutely impartial and almost omniscient entity that would regulate this flow. It also presupposes a Godlike awareness of the use to which every idea will be put.

In the absence of such an entity, the best resolution to the problem of maximizing information is to let all information flow. Let every human being have the right to speak so that the worth of their words can be judged. In this manner, freedom of speech becomes a principle of resolution. Although free speech certainly does not guarantee truth, the chances of getting good information is more likely to occur in a society that respects free speech than in one that censors.

Similar arguments can be made for the other specific natural rights that are generally claimed for man in society.

Disproving Cases

Whenever a theory is proposed, disproving instances quickly follow. If natural rights are problem solving devices which are necessitated by a state-of-nature, it will be asked, what of those conflicts that cannot be resolved in this manner? Do they not invalid your theory?

The answer is 'no'. The above-sketched approach does not postulate natural rights as moral truths, but as social tools to fix the problem of human needs and human conflict. For this theory to be 'proven' -- that is, for natural rights to be seen as desirable principles -- it is necessary only to demonstrate that they are more efficient than any other competing system of problem solving devices. Nevertheless, it is never wise to ignore disproving instances.

In general, the sorts of conflicts which are immune to resolution by natural rights fall into two broad categories: moral dilemmas; and, emergency situations.

The first category -- moral dilemmas -- is most commonly found in textbooks on ethics or posed by professors who wish to puzzle their students with an allegedly profound moral problem. The presented dilemma usually involves a situation akin to the following: by pushing a magic button, you can eliminate all heart disease in the world but, by doing so, you will cause the death of an innocent stranger. The question is: morally, should you push the button? The Hobbesian conflict here is that, in order for a great many people to live, you must kill an innocent person. This is almost a definition of a state-of nature dilemma: one person's life necessitates the death of another.

Such puzzles are not profound moral problems at all: they are philosophical sleights of hand. To take the button-pushing scenario seriously, you would have to inhabit a universe so vastly different than ours that your moral code would not even remotely resemble the one you hold today. After all, your morality has been constructed upon the realities as you know them. You have derived a code of behavior based on certain assumptions about the nature of the universe and your own nature as a human being. These assumptions did not and do not include a magic button that causes both miracle cures on a global level and instant unexplainable deaths. If the universe ran along principles that included magic buttons, you would undoubtedly have an entirely different code of behavior than you have now.

If natural rights are tools designed to address the realities of our universe and our nature, then changing the realities that determined their design will -- of course -- reduce their usefulness, or render them absolutely irrelevant. To dismiss natural rights on such grounds is like declaring a hammer to be useless because it cannot pound water into shape.

In essence, these sorts of moral dilemmas are perplexing not because they constitute moral problems, but because they constitute metaphysical ones. The moral dilemma being suggested -- if it would be a moral dilemma at all -- would exist only in another universe that ran by rules inapplicable to our own.

The second category of a disproving instance is not so easily dismissed. These are emergency cases in which the life of one human being literally requires the death of another. The most famous emergency case is undoubtedly the lifeboat example. That is: two men are adrift in a lifeboat without supplies and, unless one of them cannibalizes the other, they both will die of starvation. I fully agree that, in these circumstances, natural rights will probably be ineffectual as a tool of resolution.

Two points should be weighed regarding emergency cases, however. First, such scenarios present an extraordinary challenge to every system of social organization. No system provides an answer that would allow both men to live, no system offers a resolution that would prevent the inevitability of someone's death. As such, the real question is not whether natural rights can resolve a lifeboat situation, but whether natural rights address the situation better or worse than competing systems. Frankly, I think all systems of social resolution fail equally at this point.

Second, true emergency cases, in which your life requires another's death, constitute a minuscule percentage of the social conflicts you will encounter during your lifetime. Indeed, most of us will never be in a lifeboat situation. It makes no sense to accept or reject the social tools of daily life on the basis of how well they address highly improbable emergencies which will probably never occur.


I view natural rights not only as problem solving devices, but also as moral principles that can be rationally defended. And I see no tension in holding both views, side-by-side. Indeed, if a theory is true, or universally applicable, it would be surprising to discover that there was only one useful way to approach it. Many intellectual paths should lead you in the same direc- tion.

The conception of social principles as problem solving devices -- as morally neutral tools -- is meant merely to explore the more practical aspects of natural rights, and to provide new answers to old criticisms, such as that embodied in Hobbesian state-of-nature arguments.

(1) Ibid, pg.670.

(2) Mises, Ludwig Von, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959 [sixth printing] p. 669.

(3) Ibid, pg. 669-670.

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