Brian Micklethwait

First published 1999.

In Nigel Meek’s recent piece for the Libertarian Alliance (The Inequalities of Arguments: The Differences Between Normative, Positive, and Populist Justifications, Tactical Notes No. 24, 1999) he contrasts the “normative” natural rights position with “positive” consequentialist arguments for libertarianism: “because it’s right” with “because it works”, “ought” with “is”. But there is an error here. Consequentialism is just as much a “normative” position as is the natural rights argument. True, consequentialist arguments include “positive”, that is to say, factual claims about what are or are not the consequences of libertarian or rival political arrangements. But they all also contain a “normative” claim.

Rent control, for example, does in fact have the consequence of drying up the supply of rented living space at a price below that set by the rent controlling law. But why does this matter? It matters because we ought not to restrict such supply. Very poor people will find it harder to get homes to live in. They’ll either have to work even harder, to afford the more expensive homes that are the only ones now allowed by law, or hope for (even more) welfare or charity. And that’s wrong. I am not going here to answer objections to this argument. My point is merely that opposing rent control is a moral — “normative” — claim, not merely a factual one.

In general, we would surely all agree that intrinsic to the idea of a “good” person is that such a person considers the consequences of his actions to others (in terms of the harm his actions might cause them), and also to himself if unrelenting altruism is not his style (in the form of the likely punitive retaliations of others, the harm done to his reputation for goodness, and so on).


Nigel Meek is one of a number of people who, as far as I (wearing my Libertarian Alliance Editorial Director’s hat) am concerned, can have the run of our publishing machine. Whatever Nigel Meek submits to us of a libertarian persuasion, we publish. Then we decide what we think of it, and put any objections we may have in writing.

As it happens, I think that publishing Tactical Notes No. 24 as originally written — and then this reply to it — is particularly useful, because I don’t believe Nigel Meek is the only one who has ever thought like this. Nigel is no fool. (The Libertarian Alliance does not bestow unheckled publishing rights upon fools.) So why did he make this error? Presumably he had absorbed the uncontested assumption of the non-normative, non-moral nature of the consequentialist approach from countless other arguments and writings, many of them libertarian, which had also overlooked the same point and contained the same confusion. Hence my eagerness to publish both his piece as written, and to publish this response, for the benefit of all the other non-dolts who assume that consequentialism is only about facts. This is a short piece partly because I feel unqualified to write at greater length on philosophical matters, and partly because what I am saying is fairly obvious. Few people explicitly disagree with what I am here saying. It’s just that they sometimes overlook it. (When I did eventually assert to Nigel Meek in a phone conversation the normativeness of consequentialism, he at once saw the force of the point.)


A further reason to note in writing the morality of consequentialism is that it isn’t only natural rights libertarians who accuse consequentialist libertarians like me of being interested only in facts and indifferent to morals; many anti-libertarians aim this accusation at libertarianism as a whole. This is because it isn’t only consequentialist libertarians like me who talk consequences; natural rights libertarians generally do it also. They mostly (as Meek points out) add on at the end of their pronouncements concerning the intrinsic moral rightness of natural rights that the consequences of respecting people’s natural rights are good, and that the dangers of neglecting natural rights are harmful. Libertarians in general, therefore, of whatever philosophical persuasion, tend to talk about consequences a lot.

Since facts count for so much in consequentialist arguments, it can sometimes seem that facts are all that are involved. Libertarianism thus often seems dry and morally unengaged. “We ought, as a matter of ethics, to get rid of rent control” comes over merely as: “Rent control has, as a matter of economic fact, certain consequences.” Most political debates are about what we ought to be doing, not merely about matters of fact, and most people involved in such debates know it. Persons engaged in such debates who sound as if they don’t realise this can accordingly be extremely off-putting, because seeming not to talk ethically in a milieu that ought to involve ethics suggests indifference to ethics, and maybe even wickedness.


Natural rights libertarians are entirely right to emphasise the consequences of following and of not following rules, of being or not being guided by principles. Rules and principles are extremely useful. They have good consequences.

The TV detective series Columbo — now way into its daytime repeats for oldies phase — is a relentlessly repetitious monument to the principle that murder is murder and you mustn’t do it, no matter how worthy a person you may be in other respects, and no matter how worthless and deserving of death your victim may have been. (I seem to remember that Dostoyevsky wrote a book called Crime and Punishment along similar lines.) This week’s murderer whom Columbo is tormenting with his pseudo-bumbling interrogations is in all other ways morally excellent. He’s a heroic doctor whose hard won skills have saved thousands of lives, and he is, naturally, immensely clever (almost but not quite clever enough to outwit Columbo). His victim was a morally repugnant parasite, who didn’t deserve to live another minute. This spiteful little person’s actions were jeopardising many more good medical works in the future, risking many more lives that the good doctor would save. So the doctor killed him. Right? No. Not right at all. If we allow murder, by anyone, of anyone, then the cat is out of the bag, the genie out of the bottle. Let one “good” murderer off, and before you know it, the graph for routine murders by routinely wicked murderers of routinely good people will leap off the top of the page. In the universal cry of the harassed teacher in an unruly classroom: “What would happen if everyone behaved like that?”

The point here, which we all understand — I’m not claiming any special understanding of the world and its ways — is that if you allow the rule to slip, if you allow the principle to be compromised, then, setting aside all debate about the intrinsic rightness of the rule, the consequences will be bad.


The rule about murder is almost universally popular. Property rights can be much more contentious. Nevertheless, as libertarians we insist upon them. A lucky son of a rich father lives a life of idleness. Honest but poor persons far better deserving of such good fortune are obliged by the law not to rob the idle waster, even though in a better world they’d be richer and he’d be poorer, and even though a taste of poverty might be just what the waster needs to become a better — even a happier — person. Nevertheless, rich idlers may not be robbed by the otherwise respectable poor. Cross that line, and the next victims of robbery will be the poor themselves, respectable or disreputable. The property rights, not just of upstanding citizens with admirable jobs, fine reputations and unblemished credit ratings, but of all, must be respected.

Even those mostly very unappealing persons who are themselves suspected, accused — or even convicted — of crimes against the persons or properties of others must likewise have their rights (in the case of convicted criminals, what remain of their rights) respected.


“Rule utilitarianism”, as this attitude is sometimes called, goes further, into the realm of personal conduct. I’ve lost count of the number of times when I could have got away with travelling on the London Underground without paying, or of robbing a shop of some desirable item. Nevertheless I, and you too if you are wise, will resist — will get into the habit (follow the rule) of resisting — all such temptations. You will almost certainly get away with this or that dishonesty, but make a habit of dishonesty and sooner or later the law of averages will get you. Acquaintances will notice. You may boast of your dishonesties to people who you wrongly suppose not to disapprove of such behaviour. Or, you’ll simply get caught, by some other rule utilitarian who follows his own rigid rule about punishing all the shoplifters and fraudsters he catches, regardless of time or expense, in order to create the sort of reputation that he wants.

That the goodness rule pays off for those who follow it, but only in the long run, explains why societies which suddenly seem about to collapse do collapse. In such a world, there is no long run to reward goodness and to punish badness.

Another example of how philosophical rectitude — if that’s what it is — and the practical workings of society mesh nicely concerns the vexed matter of “victimless” crimes. A favorite talk radio soundbite of mine asserts that the “consent principle” is both “philosphically appealing” (I usually leave it at that) and sensible “in practice”, because crimes where there are no victims running around yelling and phoning for the police are extremely hard for the police even to find out about, let alone solve. Most crimes are only solved because the victims (a) tell the police that they were committed, and (b) tell them who by. But if I buy “drugs” from a drug dealer, who’s going to tell the police about that? Me? The drug dealer? Only if we flaunt our dealings in public is anyone else likely to complain. You can have entirely conventional views about the dangers of drug taking, and still be strongly influenced by this argument.


Good rules have good consequences, especially in the long run. They can even have good consequences if they are believed in for philosophically absurd or theologically surrealistic reasons. If the God of you and your neighbours tells you that you’ll be turned into goats and tortured in hell for all eternity if you ever steal from each other, you may well find yourself living in a much nicer community than the one in the next valley, where they are more rationally atheist about such things.

I believe that closet consequentialism is and has always been extremely common. God may exist, but what exact rules does he demand that we follow? Rights may be natural, but which ones exactly? It is not now easy to answer such questions and it never has been. Civilisation consists partly of the publicly agreed pretence that, because murder and thievery must be punished if all hell is not to break loose, murder and thievery are indeed “absolutely wrong”, because God or Plato or The Great Hobgoblin, or Lieutenant Columbo or Fyodor Dostoyevsky, says so. As a libertarian skeptic about the naturalness of “natural” rights, I rejoice that Nigel Meek takes so seriously the kind of rights which, for consequentialist reasons, I also think we should all accord to each other.

Philosophical Notes No. 56

ISSN 0267-7091 ISBN 1 85637 459 9 An occasional publication of the Libertarian Alliance, 25 Chapter Chambers, Esterbrooke Street, London SW1P 4NN, England. email: © 1999: Libertarian Alliance; Brian Micklethwait. When not being the LA’s Editorial Director and appearing for the LA on the radio and TV, Brian Micklethwait is an occasional self-employed desktop publisher. He is also the lucky son of a rich father. The views expressed in this publication are those of its author, and not necessarily those of the Libertarian Alliance, its Committee, Advisory Council or subscribers. Director: Dr Chris R. Tame Editorial Director: Brian Micklethwait Webmaster: Dr Sean Gabb