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Philosophical Foundations: First Principles

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I gave this talk on Saturday, February 11th for the Liberty on the Rocks economics fundamentals class. I guess you could say this is the essay version of what I said. Enjoy!


I want to give you the tools to build a foundation that will guide you to a consistent philosophy. I don’t necessarily want you to agree with everything I’m about to say, but rather, to use the guidelines of establishing first principles to form your ideals. I believe it is extremely important to constantly “check your premises.” First principles are those premises.

“First principle” defined: foundational principle. Cannot be deduced from any other proposition – in other words, an irreducible principle. Sometimes called “axioms.” First principles have no assumptions built into them.

Some historical context: When Aristotle explained his philosophical work, he said he was constantly looking for the “origins” or first principles.

In physics, a calculation is said to be from first principles if it starts directly at the level of established laws of physics and does not make assumptions such as empirical modeling.

Descartes used the method of doubt, called Cartesian doubt, to systematically doubt everything he could possibly doubt, until he was left with what he saw as irrefutable truths. Using these self-evident propositions as his axioms, or foundations, he went on to deduce his entire body of knowledge. The foundations are also called “a priori truths.”

A priori means “from the earlier.” It is knowledge that is independent of experience or evidence. i.e. “I think, therefore I am.”

You may have heard the term a priori before if you’ve studied Austrian Economics. Perhaps the greatest economist to ever live, Ludwig von Mises, deduced his entire economic philosophy from one single first principle: man acts. Hence, his magnum opus was called Human Action.

To sum up: a first principle requires no other assumptions to stand. It stands alone. It is the fundamental groundwork for developing a coherent, consistent philosophy. Drilling down to first principles requires some mental gymnastics. “Cartesian doubt” is one way. Another similar method would be to keep asking, “why?” like a child until it no longer makes any sense. As we’re about to learn, a good first principle is not only irreducible, it is also irrefutable.

Why is this important? To evaluate policies, you must have a framework or lens you use to determine what is good and bad policy. This is entirely foreign to most people. Instead, almost everyone forms opinions about policy by wondering to themselves, “do I think this is a good idea?” If so, I’ll advocate it. If not, I won’t.

Facebook example: Guy defending laws that force gun owners to lock their guns away in a safe location, unloaded. His reasoning: “Well, I do it. I think it’s a good idea.” Oh I get it Mr. Guy on Facebook. Your first principle is, “if I do it, then everyone else should.” This is an example of an invalid first principle.

This typical thoughtless reasoning is not good enough. We must have a place to start our process of thinking. A place that we can go back to each and every time. Sitting there wondering whether something sounds good or not is arbitrary and whimsical. It inevitably leads to contradictions and inconsistencies.

Let’s assume my audience is a step or two ahead of the guy on Facebook. Let’s assume we’ve advanced beyond, “that sounds nice” to some perceived level of principles. What then do most people think are valid fist principles? Let’s throw out some common examples:

Man has liberty! Property rights! The Constitution! All suffering must be stopped!

Each of those invalid first principles has at least one, if not many, built in assumptions. For example:

Why does man have liberty? Where do property rights come from and why are they valid? Where did the laws in the Constitution come from? If you want the Constitution to rule you, does it also have to rule me? If human suffering must be stopped, do I need to stop it?

Enough beating around the bush. Let’s give this first principles thing a test spin. I’m going to give you an example of a philosophical foundation based on a set of first principles to get to the granddaddy of them all: property rights!

(Side note: Like Murray Rothbard, I believe all rights ultimately come down to property rights. Even free speech. Turns out, Mises was on board as well: “The program of classical liberalism, condensed into a single word, would have to read: property.” -Mises).

First principle: I own my own body. OR if you prefer: I control my own body.

This is an irrefutable axiom! If you attempt to deny it, you validate it. In other words, you’d have to exercise control of your body to produce the sound waves that deny that you control your body. Similar to Mises’ first principle – man acts. You have to act in order to say or demonstrate that man does not act.

Bottom line: to deny you own or control your body serves only to validate that you do.

Second: I own the effects of my body. Put differently, I am responsible for the effects of my actions.

This goes hand in hand with control of your body. If you are not in control of your body, then you do not have responsibility for the effects of your body.

For example, if someone were to push me into you, you wouldn’t get mad at me, you’d get mad at the pusher. I couldn’t control my body while flying through the air, therefore, I am not responsible for the effects of my body knocking into you. On the contrary, when someone is in control of their body, they ARE responsible for the effects of their body.

If someone tests this principle by saying to you that they are not responsible for their actions, you can ask a couple revealing questions: “well who is moving your mouth and vocal chords?” or you can ask, “who just said that?” If they say “ME!” then they are indeed taking responsibility for their actions. A funny way to prove this is if the person is denying responsibility for their actions and there is a third person standing in proximity to you two, then after they articulate their denial, turn to the third person and say to them, “I do not agree with your argument.” Usually the person in denial will jump in and say, “wait wait, I said that!” Or they’ll say, “why are you talking to them, I made that argument!” You can then respond in check-mate fashion, “Oh really? YOU’RE responsible for that argument???”

If they insist they have no responsibility for the effects of their actions, then it’s illogical to debate with them. It’d be like debating with your TV or a tape recorder.

Third: If we have ownership over our bodies and the effects of our bodies, then we own the consequences of our actions – good and bad. Therefore, if I use my body and mind to create something, I own the creation. If I use my body and mind to commit a murder, I am responsible for that murder.

Imagine during my murder trial I were to argue that I am responsible for my body but not the consequences of my actions. I would be making the rather bizarre argument that I take responsibility for aiming and shooting the gun with my arm, hand, and fingers, but I do not have responsibility for where the bullet ended up. Would that defense work?

From owning our bodies and the consequences of our actions, we can prove that humans validly own property – simply as an extension of our bodies performing certain actions. For example, I use my body and mind to build a shed. The shed is a consequence of my actions that I am responsible for. In this case, it’s a new piece of property.

Keep in mind: to attempt to disprove property ownership is to attack first principles. And attacking these first principles only serves to validate them!

If we accept the principle that owning property is valid, then what does that imply? Remember, to own something means the ability to control it. (If ownership did not include control, I would be unable to type these words into my blog. Thus, you’d be reading complete gibberish or nothing at all).

To exercise control over something means you decide what to do with it – not me or anyone else. If you use your body and mind to create a pillow, that pillow is an effect of your actions. You own the effects of your actions. Does it make sense then that I get to decide what to do with your pillow? Can a group of people get together and decide what to do with your pillow? Absolutely not! However, as the owner, you could transfer your pillow to me, but I cannot take it without invalidating property ownership as a principle.

Hey! Look what we did there! We just validated trade and charity. The ability to transfer property from one owner to another is just another way of describing trade or charity. You can transfer your pillow to me for money (trade), or for nothing (charity).

To sum up the logic: if property ownership is valid, then controlling property is valid. Controlling property means the owner has the power to make decisions regarding the property – including the ability to transfer it through trade or charity.

First principles vs. arguments from effect – aka consquentialism / utilitarianism.

First principles stand in contrast to arguments from effect, or what many call consequentialism or utilitarianism. Arguments from effect judge a policy by its effects rather than how the policy got there to begin with.

An immediate problem with arguments from effect are that the foreseen effects are merely hypothesized. Judging a policy by what you think might result incurs two massive unavoidable realities: the policy’s unintended consequences on groups you never considered and the policy’s unintended incentives created that will affect future behavior.

Putting aside this immediate problem with arguments from effect, let’s examine how a first principles approach contrasts an “ex-post” consequentialist approach:

For example, you say subsidies for renewable energy are good because it will result in less pollution and saving the planet. First principles would ask, where did the money for the subsidies come from? In what manner was the money obtained? Was someone denied ownership over their property to supply the subsidy?

Or you’ll hear an argument that seat belt laws are good because lives will be saved. First principles would ask, who owns the seat belt in the car? Who owns the car? Can two people have exclusive control over property at the same time? Can the government own your car along with you? If they can’t, how can they validly exercise control over your car if they don’t partially own it? If you both own it, how do you determine when you get to control it and when they get to control it? What about me? Can I own your car along with you? If not, why can a government official own your car with you and exercise control over it and not me?

To take it to the extreme, if it is valid for two people to have exclusive control over the same property, can I partially own one of your kidneys? You have two! Should I be able to take one of your kidneys if I need it because we both technically “own” it?

Real life policy questions:

Let’s begin by examining wealth transfers from the rich to the poor. First principles asks, how did the poor person get the money from the rich person? Was it trade? Was it a gift? If not, did the rich person lose ownership of their property and thus, ownership of the effects of their actions? If that is the case, how can the poor person logically “own” the money? You can’t invalidate property ownership by stealing from the rich guy, only to turn around and affirm property ownership by giving the stolen goods to the poor guy.

Bottom line: All forms of theft are a contradiction. Theft invalidates property ownership and affirms it at the same time. In order to take something from someone, you must deny that property rights are valid only to turn around and affirm them by “owning” the stolen goods. You can’t have it both ways.

Minimum wage laws – harm the employer (business owner) and the potential employee (owner of self).

They deny the owner the property right in his business by denying him the control of his business. It prevents the business owner to do with his property what he sees fit. Minimum wage laws say, “you cannot hire person X at a certain price.” In other words, you may not trade your property with their property.

Imagine someone coming into your home and not allowing you to control the property in your home. They might say things like: “Move your TV over there!” “Take down those pictures!” “Throw out that t-shirt!” You wouldn’t stand for that would you? In the same way, someone coming into a business owner’s store for example, and barking orders about where things should go and who should and should not be hired also violates ownership. I’m not saying no one can validly make suggestions, but ultimately, the decisions are the property owner’s to make.

Minimum wage laws also deny the potential employee the control of their body’s actions. Let’s say the employee would like to offer their services for $3 per hour. In other words, the employee wants to trade the effects of his body (his labor) with the effects of the business owner’s body (the business he created) for property (money). Denying this trade of property means that neither the employer nor the employee actually controls their own property. Instead, some other person has ultimate control.


Both of these examples and the ones earlier, reinforce that almost all matters of policy come down to property rights. The attempt to invalidate property rights is ultimately a logical contradiction. That’s the least of it. Worse is the fact that when some person or entity attempts to violate property ownership in one area of life, it is a threat to all property ownership everywhere. Why? Because then ownership as a universal principle becomes arbitrary in nature: sometimes respected, sometimes denied. Arbitrary property rights leads us down a very dark path, as someone must determine when property rights are valid, who may or may not enjoy property rights, when violations are allowed and by whom, and so on.

“Arbitrary principle” is an oxymoron. Principles are universal, preferences are arbitrary.

I certainly have not described the world as it is. Far from it. Just because violating property ownership is a logical contradiction does not mean that many of us care to acknowledge that point or to act in a manner consistent with reason. Indeed, there are plenty of people out there stealing – in both the private and public sector. By the same token, there are many sedentary people eating cookies and candy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy exercise, fruits, and vegetables. We can choose to act in accordance with logic, reason, and a consistent philosophy, regardless of what others may or may not do. The trick is, putting in the time required to perform the mental gymnastics that eventually lead to a solid foundation. Once you think you’ve nailed it all down, you haven’t. Doubt yourself and re-think your premises. Don’t ever give up on the process.

Allow me to reiterate: Even if the philosophical foundations I’ve laid out don’t strike your fancy, I hope you are intrigued enough to use these guidelines to form the groundwork for your own philosophy.

Written by jlongo12

February 13, 2012 at 11:23 am

Santorum’s Greatest Hits

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***Updated 3 times at the very bottom***

I have been asked why I believe Santorum is more collectivist and authoritarian than many on the Left. All you have to do is listen to Santorum’s own words. Then, check his record. Let’s start with some great quotes by the man himself:

“They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom or in cultural issues. That is not how traditional conservatives view the world.”

“One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a libertarianish right. You know, the left has gone so far left and the right in some respects has gone so far right that they touch each other. They come around in the circle. This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view.”

So far, those are my two favorite Santorum quotes. Clearly he is not apologetic at all for his anti-individual, pro-collective views. Let’s now turn to his record:

The Club for Growth wrote a little bit on Santorum’s dismal voting record a few years back:

“Some of those high profile votes include his support for No Child Left Behind in 2001, which greatly expanded the federal government’s role in education. He supported the massive new Medicare drug entitlement in 2003 that now costs taxpayers over $60 billion a year and has almost $16 trillion in unfunded liabilities. He voted for the 2005 highway bill that included thousands of wasteful earmarks, including the Bridge to Nowhere. In fact, in a separate vote, Santorum had the audacity to vote to continue funding the Bridge to Nowhere rather than send the money to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. In the 2003-2004 session of Congress, Santorum sponsored or cosponsored 51 bills to increase spending, and failed to sponsor or co-sponsor even one spending cut proposal. In his last Congress (2005-2006), he had one of the biggest spending agendas of any Republican — sponsoring more spending increases than Republicans Lisa Murkowski, Lincoln Chafee and Thad Cochran or Democrats Herb Kohl, Evan Bayh and Ron Wyden.”

Then we have the classic Red State roundup of Santorum’s big government record here.

Michael Tanner of National Review had this to say about ol’ Rick:

“He never met an earmark that he didn’t like. In fact, it wasn’t just earmarks for his own state that he favored, which might be forgiven as pure electoral pragmatism, but earmarks for everyone, including the notorious “Bridge to Nowhere.” The quintessential Washington insider, he worked closely with Tom DeLay to set up the “K Street Project,” linking lobbyists with the GOP leadership. He voted against NAFTA and has long opposed free trade. He backed higher tariffs on everything from steel to honey. He still supports an industrial policy with the government tilting the playing field toward manufacturing industries and picking winners and losers.

I could fill this entire blog with commentary about his voting record. Those quotes above are from a quick Google search. If you want the Cliff’s Notes, take a good look at Red State’s post. Otherwise, use your Google machine to dig into his voting record.

Now Santorum again in his own words:

In this video Santorum likens government to the family and maintains the position that people have an obligation to the collective just like they have an obligation to family members. He states that individuals are not responsible for themselves, but to everyone else as well. Unlike the standard Conservative view, he doesn’t believe in personal responsibility. He believes in collective responsibility. He repeats over and over that people should work “for the common good.” Even the Leftist interviewer points out that “working for the common good” is seen by many as a “little pink, a little socialistic.” Santorum disagrees.

Here is Santorum’s tirade against individualism (sorry Ayn Rand). By the way Rick, there is a society that believes in individualism. It’s called America. David Boaz of the Cato Institute then goes on to rip Santorum for being so openly against liberty and freedom.

Here Rick explains that he has “real concerns” about the Tea Party:

Rick defends SOPA here because our rights and freedoms are limited and should be regulated.

I could go on here, but I think I’ve made my point. Never in my life have I witnessed a GOP candidate for any office so openly hostile to the fundamental ideals of liberty and freedom. He does not believe that individuals have inalienable rights that cannot and shall not be infringed by government. In fact, he believes the exact opposite: that whatever rights we have are ours to keep only if government can’t find a good reason to undermine them (take a look at his SOPA answer again if you don’t see that). He most certainly does not believe in “limited government,” but rather, “limited freedom.”

That makes him a collectivist of the worst kind – precisely because many people don’t believe he is.

UPDATE: Santorum doesn’t understand basic economics. Lots of great quotes from the Cato Institute here.

UPDATE II: Reason Magazine nailed it way back in 2005: America’s Anti-Reagan Isn’t Hillary Clinton. It’s Rick Santorum.

UPDATE III: Ari Armstrong makes the case over at the Objective Standard that Santorum is just another big government collectivist. Here’s a small dose: “While Santorum claims to invoke the Founders, his views are diametrically opposed to theirs. The right to the pursuit of happiness is one of the “unalienable rights” the Founders sought to protect in creating America. That’s why it’s specified in the Declaration of Independence.”

Written by jlongo12

February 8, 2012 at 11:17 am

Penn on Point

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Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Written by jlongo12

October 20, 2011 at 10:19 am

Posted in libertarianism

Stupid Hobbes

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Circular Hobbesian irrationality.

Hobbes, you suck.

It’s a shame so many people buy into this nonsense to this day.

Written by jlongo12

October 16, 2011 at 9:32 am

Posted in libertarianism

“It Doesn’t Matter”

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A new Stefan Molyneux video got me thinking about the absurdity of some of the questions I (we) have to deal with when trying to describe my (our) ideal world. Usually, I talk about what conclusions I’ve drawn from applying my principles of morality consistently and universally. “When you apply the non-aggression principle universally and follow it to its logical conclusions, these things (x, y, z,) happen.” The response is typically the same – not “why” but “how.” No one seems to care about the why. In other words, the typical response disregards the morality of the situation and instead fixates only on the practicality.

Granted, I came to my conclusions through efficiency (practicality) reasoning back in 2005 so I can sympathize with these responses, but the difference is, I never pushed back against a voluntary society using practicality as my weapon. Instead, my journey was through my economics program at George Mason and my voracious self-learning. The efficiency perspective is what I was training in. It took some time for me to get there simply because I needed to obtain the economic knowledge necessary to realize the efficiencies of markets across ALL goods and services. And once I got there, I remained there. Shortly thereafter I started to delve into the moral reasons for my practical beliefs.

What I’m talking about here is the “how” push back that we frequently get when talking about the immorality of the initiation of force. “But, but, how will children get education?” “But who will build the roads?” “How will our food get inspected?”

The absurdity of such questions becomes more and more evident  as I continue to learn and have conversations with people. This is what brought me to the new Molyneux video. Stefan brings up most of the points I’ve used in the past. “You believe children are being adequately educated now?” He also uses the classic slavery analogy that I’ve used as well. “It doesn’t matter who will farm and pick cotton after slavery is abolished. All that matters is that we get rid of slavery because it is evil and immoral.” “I can’t tell you what jobs the freed slaves will get. It doesn’t matter.”

The “it doesn’t matter” line of reasoning might work on some people, but I’m willing to bet that it fails precisely because most people want to hear about the “how.” They seem to care less about the “why.”

There was one “how” question that Stefan brought up in the video that really illustrates the absurdity in all the “how” questions. “How will we be protected in a free society? Who will protect my property?” It’s difficult to take that question seriously. As Stefan points out, could we do any worse than being robbed of around 40 to 50% of our earnings each year while the remaining earnings we are “allowed” to keep is continually inflated away through the actions of the Federal Reserve? All the while our future earnings are stolen through massive debts incurred in our name but without our consent.

“But who will protect my property?” Are you kidding me? In a free society, would you voluntarily pay for the protection “services” you get now? Would you pay for someone to steal nearly half of your earnings outright, inflate away the rest of your purchasing power, and steal your future earnings through debt you never consented to? No voluntary service could offer that protection plan and even attract one customer. The point is, it can’t get worse than the extortion racket we have now. Not in a voluntary society.

I’ll repeat myself. The government can’t protect your property by first stealing half of it. It cannot protect your money by forcing you to use a currency it counterfeits at will. Rid yourself of the “how.” Like Stefan said, it really doesn’t matter.

Written by jlongo12

September 22, 2011 at 10:26 am

Posted in libertarianism

Quotes of the Day

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This from Robert Higgs:

Even Marx understood the economics of war better than the Keynesians do. In the Grundrisse, he wrote: “The impact of war is self-evident, since economically it is exactly the same as if the nation were to drop a part of its capital into the ocean.” Neglecting capital leads Keynesians into error again and again, both coming (to the bust) and going (out of it).

This from Daniel Lin:

If cigarette packs are required to have pictures of diseased lungs, college brochures should be required to have pictures of graduates working at Starbucks.

This from Velogogo:

How long before someone gets “SHUT” and “UP” tattooed on their legs?

This from Ted King:

Look, let’s not kid ourselves, Colorado has been due for a signature bike race for some time now. I feel fairly certain in saying Colorado is the cycling mecca of America.

This from Howard Roark (speaking through Ayn Rand) in the Fountainhead:

It stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there’s someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master.

Written by jlongo12

August 31, 2011 at 9:25 am

Consider Consent

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Imagine a violent gang moved into your neighborhood. They began to rob houses and residents at will. No one could stop them, they were far too strong to resist. Feeling empowered, the gang decreed that they were not going anywhere and residents who did not like their company ought to leave. Liking your neighborhood and its surroundings, leaving town seemed like a poor choice. However, the gang was terrorizing the neighborhood, including many of your friends.

The question is: if you do not leave town, are you “consenting” to the gang’s rule? What if the gang formally writes a contract that states their bad intentions and includes a clause guaranteeing no harm to residents who choose to leave?

What if the violent gang only harms 30% of the residents in the neighborhood, leaving the other 70% completely alone. Do the 30% have to leave?

What if the gang takes from the 30% and gives some of the stolen goods to the remaining 70%? The gang then holds an election. What percentage of the neighborhood has to vote to approve of the gang’s activities for the gang’s rule to be just?

Now consider this thought experiment:

“The Tale of the Slave”
from Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 290-292.

Consider the following sequence of cases, which we shall call the Tale of the Slave, and imagine it is about you.

1. There is a slave completely at the mercy of his brutal master’s whims. He often is cruelly beaten, called out in the middle of the night, and so on.
2. The master is kindlier and beats the slave only for stated infractions of his rules (not fulfilling the work quota, and so on). He gives the slave some free time.
3. The master has a group of slaves, and he decides how things are to be allocated among them on nice grounds, taking into account their needs, merit, and so on.
4. The master allows his slaves four days on their own and requires them to work only three days a week on his land. The rest of the time is their own.
5. The master allows his slaves to go off and work in the city (or anywhere they wish) for wages. He requires only that they send back to him three-sevenths of their wages. He also retains the power to recall them to the plantation if some emergency threatens his land; and to raise or lower the three-sevenths amount required to be turned over to him. He further retains the right to restrict the slaves from participating in certain dangerous activities that threaten his financial return, for example, mountain climbing, cigarette smoking.
6. The master allows all of his 10,000 slaves, except you, to vote, and the joint decision is made by all of them. There is open discussion, and so forth, among them, and they have the power to determine to what uses to put whatever percentage of your (and their) earnings they decide to take; what activities legitimately may be forbidden to you, and so on.

Let us pause in this sequence of cases to take stock. If the master contracts this transfer of power so that he cannot withdraw it, you have a change of master. You now have 10,000 masters instead of just one; rather you have one 10,000-headed master. Perhaps the 10,000 even will be kindlier than the benevolent master in case 2. Still, they are your master. However, still more can be done. A kindly single master (as in case 2) might allow his slave(s) to speak up and try to persuade him to make a certain decision. The 10,000-headed monster can do this also.

7. Though still not having the vote, you are at liberty (and are given the right) to enter into the discussions of the 10,000, to try to persuade them to adopt various policies and to treat you and themselves in a certain way. They then go off to vote to decide upon policies covering the vast range of their powers.
8. In appreciation of your useful contributions to discussion, the 10,000 allow you to vote if they are deadlocked; they commit themselves to this procedure. After the discussion you mark your vote on a slip of paper, and they go off and vote. In the eventuality that they divide evenly on some issue, 5,000 for and 5,000 against, they look at your ballot and count it in. This has never yet happened; they have never yet had occasion to open your ballot. (A single master also might commit himself to letting his slave decide any issue concerning him about which he, the master, was absolutely indifferent.)
9. They throw your vote in with theirs. If they are exactly tied your vote carries the issue. Otherwise it makes no difference to the electoral outcome.

The question is: which transition from case 1 to case 9 made it no longer the tale of a slave?

Written by jlongo12

July 8, 2011 at 12:29 pm

Posted in libertarianism