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Friday, July 25, 2003
 
Lies and Libertarianism

Daniel Davies makes (still yet another) excellent point in this post over at Crooked Timber. Libertarianism, Davies ventures, should advocate no stigma against the public act of lying, as it does not in itself constitute action harmful to others. “Why,” then, he asks, “have they got such a downer on fraud?”
The prohibition on force is easy to understand. Force is nasty; it harms people directly and interferes with their liberty. But defrauding someone is just offering them an opportunity to harm themselves. Rather like selling them heroin, or persuading them to opt out of a defined benefit pension scheme, two activities that most of us would support people’s right to do, even though we might disapprove of the consequences. If we’re going to establish a strong principle of caveat emptor, as most libertarians seem to think that we should, why should we have a prohibition on that form of free speech known as “lying”? If someone wants to be fooled by a smooth-talking charmer, or decides rationally that they can’t be bothered verifying the accuracy of claims made to them, why should the govenrment step in and paternalistically demand that they be insulated from the consequences of their actions?
‘Pure’ libertarians face a serious theoretical problem in that they are loath to admit that structure and rules are fundamental to the existence of a sphere in which individual actors can excercise their ‘freedoms.’

Without sanctions against the use of physical force, libertarians admit, none of us could be secure in our possessions or persons. Although such rules limit the scope of one’s behavior, they’re deemed prerequisite to civilized society. Rules enforcing truth-telling are equally so.

First, if there are to be any rules whatsoever, there is required some form of institutionalized enforcement authority that determines their applicability. If the rules are to perform the function in society for which they are intended, they must be applied as much as possible to instances of behavior that actually happened. Insofar as data pertaining to the enforcement of the rules is obtained from the mouths of humans, there must be sanctions against fabrication and/or distortion of evidence.

Second, libertarians acknowledge the utility of contracts, which rely for their very essence on the validity of the terms contained within them. If a party to a contract is found to have made false claims, the contract is void. As those who gain advantage by means of dodgy contracts deprive others of their property or services without compensation, the bedrock necessity of contractual truth-telling to a libertarian system is self-evident.

Total proscription of lying is unrealistic and doesn’t make sense, but in areas where one’s words impact upon compliance with accepted rules of conduct, mandating truth is essential.