Column by tzo.

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A common criticism of natural law, which posits an objective set of rules for ethical human behavior, is the claim that human behavior can never be subject to objective law in the same way that physical objects are subject to objective physical laws, like gravity.
You see, the word “objective” lands us in the realm of science, and science scoffs at our presence there.
“Objective ethics? Please. The law of gravity is an objective law of nature, as we can observe, predict, replicate and record its effects, and always get the same results. How in the world can you believe that there can possibly exist such a thing as natural law that applies to human behavior in such an objective manner? One cannot defy the law of gravity, but whatever law you wish to create for human behavior can be broken at will by any individual, so please, take your talk of objectivity on this subject elsewhere.”
“I mean, if you claim that murdering another human being is against the natural law, what kind of law of nature is it, really, if anyone can break it at will?”
I would counter that natural law pertains to the human race and is every bit as observable, predictable, replicable, and recordable as any other physical law of nature. Natural law describes the proper way for individual human beings to interact so that human society may best survive.
Yes, any individual may decide to break the natural law in his interactions with other human beings, but the statistical insignificance of a single violation does not in itself doom the human race. But when social institutions are implemented which violate natural law, and when an appreciable percentage of the human race begins to more flagrantly violate natural law in their everyday existence, then the social order—the human-to-human cooperation that is the foundation of continued human existence—is endangered.
Leon Moisseiff designed a bridge, which was successfully opened to traffic in 1940. In order to successfully build that bridge, he obviously could not ignore the laws of physics pertinent to bridge construction. So Leon took these physical laws into account in his design, the bridge was successfully completed and opened, and cars began traversing its span.
And then one day it collapsed.
The laws of physics are not forgiving, and when flaunted, even unwittingly, they bite. Leon took into account gravity, vibration, torque, tensile strength, elasticity, and other factors, but he took them into account in an incomplete manner. The result of this oversight was a combining of all the aforementioned factors into a phenomenon called flutter, and this flutter quickly and utterly demolished the Tacoma Narrows Bridge on Nov. 7, 1940, a mere four months after its christening.
Flutter is a complex combination of forces that produce an effect. It is not always observable, even though all its component factors may be. There are no simple formulas to explain it. A bridge designer may believe that he has fully taken into account the effects of these component factors and yet these very same factors, dynamically combined into flutter, can destroy the bridge.
Natural law is not directly analogous to the law of gravity, but rather to flutter.
One can build a bridge without regard to flutter, and it will stand until a strong-enough wind comes along to shatter it. Likewise, human beings can build societies without regard to natural law, either intentionally or through ignorance, but eventually natural forces will combine to expose this flaw, and the societal structure will fail.
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge was an object lesson that is routinely shown to prospective bridge designers and architects. The human race learned from the failure, and applied that knowledge so as to take into account a larger set of nature's immutable laws. We learned from our mistake.
But we seem to be not so willing to learn from the social failures that litter our history. Societies need government—that’s how we’ve always done it—and so that’s how we’ll keep doing it. If one collapses, we just start over and try to do a better job the next time.
Just imagine the person who would defend the practice of building bridge after bridge after failing bridge, resulting in the deaths of many human beings, by saying that hey, there is no such thing as flutter. Bridges collapse, that's all, and so we deal with it. When a bridge falls, we build a new one. Yes, unfortunately people are killed in these unfortunate events, but that is the price we pay for deciding to build bridges. Can you imagine the world without bridges? Alrighty, then.
Well, here is my objective observation on human societies: When societies organize themselves with governments in charge, they inevitably fail. This is an observable, universal, repeatable and predictive phenomenon. I would daresay it fits the definition of “objective” in any scientist’s dictionary, so how can we not be describing a law of nature here?
The laws of physics are not a set of discrete laws, but a continuous interacting set of forces that create the fabric of the universe. Either one respects the laws of physics as a whole, or one doesn't. If he fails to adhere in some respect, eventually there will be negative consequences.
Likewise, either a society respects the natural law, a.k.a. the laws of physics as applied to human action and interaction, or it doesn't. Failure to adhere will eventually have negative consequences.
We have been building societies with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge blueprints as a starting point. This design has a flaw in it that guarantees that it will eventually fail, but it looks so pretty on the drawing table and so majestic when built that we can't seem to resist ignoring aspects of the natural law that will eventually prove to be our undoing.
Establishing a government as a means of ordering society is a violation of the natural law. Government is an inherent structural flaw that would defy natural law, just as the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was built in defiance of the laws of physics.
And in the battle of Man versus The Laws of Nature, guess who always wins?
Societal excitation larger than the natural damping of the system, increasing the level of vibration, resulting in self-exciting oscillation. The vibration levels build up and are only limited when the damping of the object matches the energy input, which can result in large amplitudes and can lead to rapid failure.
Galloping Gertie is beginning to kick up her heels. Can you feel it?
Hold on tight now.
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tzo's picture
Columnist tzo
Columns on STR: 64

tzo now lives in your head.


Suverans2's picture

A "Must read!" if I've ever seen one.

Only one small criticism.

You wrote: "Government is an inherent structural flaw that would defy natural law, just as the Tacoma Narrows Bridge was built in defiance of the laws of physics."

Isn't that a bit like saying, that because the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed, "bridges are an inherent structural flaw that defy the law of physics"?

More to the "root" of the problem, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge collapsed because it was "built in defiance of the laws of physics", and governments collapse into tyranny because they are "built in defiance of the natural law".

You once wrote: "Objective ethics [natural law] is thus seen, quite correctly, to be the mortal enemy of government, in that if this idea is ever widely accepted, government necessarily disappears." [My emphasis and bracketed info added]

You came very close, my friend. IMO, it would be more correct to say, "Objective ethics [natural law] is thus seen, quite correctly, to be the mortal enemy of tyrannical government, in that if this idea is ever widely accepted, tyrannical government necessarily disappears."

That is why the builders of government reject the natural law, and brainwash their subjects into rejecting it as well.

Thank you for your solid efforts.

tzo's picture

My definition of government includes coercion, and so in this respect, I stand behind my statements. Government and taxes are inseparable in my definition. I understand (I think, please correct me if I'm wrong.) that your definition of government includes voluntary social organizations. Funding of such organizations would be contributions, or payments made under contract between consenting and informed parties. It would seem odd to call them taxes. Such an organization can only preside over land justly claimed and owned by its constituent individuals. This is the trickiest aspect of all of this, as the vast majority of Americans think that "their" "voluntary" "participatory" government justly owns and has jurisdiction over all the land it currently claims to the exclusion of everyone else.

It just seems to me that if you include voluntary associations under the heading of government, the water muddies up a bit. But again, I think the toughest aspect of defining what is just and what is not is the determination of how the planet can be rightfully parceled out among the 6 billion humans who are currently along for the ride.

Again, to pick nits, the Founding Fathers were tyrannical in that they claimed the right to collect taxes by force from all those who found themselves within the government's jurisdiction. How did the government acquire the land that corresponded with their claim to jurisdiction? Was it a just claim? Under such conditions, even a 1% tax is tyranny, because if you do not surrender the tribute, into the concrete box you go. Someone else has a higher claim upon you and your property than do you. That is the root of the problem that is government.

Hopefully that ramble wasn't too incoherent.

Suverans2's picture

Are you saying that in your opinion that it is impossible to create a "government" without "flutter", a "government" based on the laws of nature, with the natural law (of man) as its foundation, a "government" whose sole duty is to protect the natural rights of its voluntary members?

The law of nature is superior in obligation to any other. It is binding in all countries and at all times. No human laws are valid if opposed to this, and all which are binding derive their authority either directly or indirectly from it. ~ Institutes of American Law by John Bouvier, 1851, Part I, Title II, No. 9

Or, are you only saying that when we do this we'll have to give it a new name, a name other than "government", or it will "muddy the waters"? If it is this latter, I can go along with that. What do you suggest we call it, my friend?

I'm kind of partial to calling it a "PROTECT'ORATE, n. Government by a protector." (Source: Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language)

Suverans2's picture

"...if you do not surrender the tribute, into the concrete box you go."

Yeah, that's what I keep reading, but I'm still patiently waiting for the "evidence" to pour in showing that non-members who don't take any "member-only" benefits/privileges and who don't use "Taxpayer Identification Numbers" are "taxpayers". http://strike-the-root.com/taxation-is-robbery

Taxpayer. One who is subject to a tax on income, regardless of whether he or she pays the tax. I.R.C. § 7701(a)(14). ~ Black's Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition (c.1991), page 1462

I.R.C. § 7701(a)(14) Taxpayer The term “taxpayer” means any person subject to any internal revenue tax.

Bill St. Clair's picture

Nice comparison of physical to natural law, and interesting thesis that a central state is a violation of natural law. I think you're probably right, but you haven't shown that simply designing a better government wouldn't get rid of the flutter in the human domain just as designing better bridges has eliminated it in the physical. Unfortunately, the time for flutter to appear in the human domain tends to be more than a human lifetime ("a democracy lasts for 200 years..."), so it's very difficult to properly learn from our mistakes.

tzo's picture

Government, in this analogy, is not really a thing but rather the lack of a thing. It is the lack of respect for the natural law. One cannot build a better bridge that can withstand flutter until the bridge respects the physical laws of flutter. Once that happens, the flaw is no longer in the blueprint. Conversely, if the flaw remains, flutter will eventually win.

Excellent point about the relatively long time that passes between government failures, which makes it difficult to identify a pattern and a source of the problem. Of course, the history we learn is from the perspective of the government schools, and one cannot expect them to question their very existence as the possible cause of societal failure. They teach the opposite lesson, that societal order is impossible without government.

When the USSR collapsed, a relatively recent occurrence, no news channel pondered out loud that perhaps this was the inevitable result of having a government, but rather that this was the inevitable result of having that particular type of government.

If one views history without the government goggles on, then some different interpretations of the evidence can be made. But as long as governments own 100% of the land area of the planet, it is a bit difficult to put alternative ideas into practice.

Suverans2's picture

I agree, Bill St. Clair, that our friend tzo didn't show that "simply designing a better government [particularly one based on the natural law] wouldn't get rid of the flutter in the human domain just as designing better bridges has eliminated it in the physical."

"If a nation were founded on this basis, it seems to me that order would prevail among the people, in thought as well as in deed. It seems to me that such a nation would have the simplest, easiest to accept, economical, limited, non-oppressive, just, and enduring government imaginable - whatever its political form might be." ~ Excerpted from The Law by Frédéric Bastiat http://bastiat.org/en/the_law.html

The trick is not to learn from "our" mistakes, but rather learn from "others" mistakes. If we don't limit our discussion to only "democracy", when we are talking about "government" in general, there are plenty of "mistakes" to learn from, since the history of governments apparently goes back at least 5,000 years. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Government#Origin

What we don't have, as far as I have ascertained, is an example of a government founded, in truth, on the natural law. The great American experiment seemed to start out that way, according to some of the words of their declaration of secession, but it most certainly did not adhere to that foundation with their new Constitution.

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

tzo: Thanks for the article. In an analogous way, Ludwig von Mises' use of praxeology as the science of human action embodies these natural laws, and it even posits that some of them are apodictic. They have to be accepted on their face just as many other "starting points" for investigation are in philosophy. Likewise, he warned, societies that are built upon violations of praxeological insights will always fail to accomplish their stated objectives. Nice going.

Suverans2's picture

Meaning no disrespect, I'm curious, Lawrence M. Ludlow, do you really believe that the average man, with a government education, is going to understand ten cent words like "analogous" (similar), "praxeology" (the study of human action and conduct), "apodictic" (necessarily true or logically certain), "praxeological", the last three of which even got tagged as non-words by Mozilla Firefox's automatic spell check, or that he's going to frequently consult a dictionary, so he can at least TRY to understand what you are writing about?

10 cent word When someone puts a term into simple speech they are using a 10 cent word and usually obfuscating things.
Obfuscating? Way to use a 10 cent word! ~ Urban Dictionary http://tinyurl.com/2d3sds6

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Suverans2: Fortunately, I'm communicating with the STR crowd. I have to agree that Mises' vocabulary is a bit much, but I am discussing Mises, so I use his words. It's more for the Mises readers since I was just writing about that recently in the "Libertarians and the Environment" series here. But message received. I'll try to do better in the future.

Suverans2's picture

I had no idea that the "STR crowd" was so much better educated than I am, I had to look some of those words up. Apodictic?? I'll try to remember my place in the future.

And, according to Jim Davies:

“If every reader of STR were as knowledgeable and experienced as you [all], I guess it was all a waste of time [for me to even mention this to you]. But you never know, perhaps there was someone reading this idea for the first time. In fact, if there wasn't - if STR consisted only of people like you - we'd be in pretty deep trouble.”

All I was trying to say in that reply to you is that it's okay to use bombastic[1] language, but perhaps it would be helpful if we defined those ten cent words for people outside the "STR crowd", like me.

[1] bombastic adjective → using words that are intended to impress people but do not sound sincere or do not express things very clearly ~ One Look Dictionary Search

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

I shall try harder in the future. My apologies.

mhstahl's picture

I wonder if you could help me with something. You wrote:

"When societies organize themselves with governments in charge, they inevitably fail. This is an observable, universal, repeatable and predictive phenomenon"

When has a "society" ever failed-and define "fail"? I can't think of one. Governments might be said to "fail", but where, with the possible exception of Somalia, has a government ever actually ceased to exist? It certainly did not in the former USSR. India still has a powerful government, despite shift from british rule, as does Pakistan. They change names, they shift form, they might de-centralize-but they keep going, someone will always take the reigns and reinstate the shattered bureaucracy.

Are you certain that people slaughtering each other over trifles to the benefit of a few is not "natural law"? Apes maintain rather brutal hierarchies, after all. I've always thought "natural" ought to be a thing to get away from-it is after all in many ways truly red in tooth and claw....rather like government.

Paul's picture

"Are you saying that in your opinion that it is impossible to create a "government" without "flutter", a "government" based on the laws of nature, with the natural law (of man) as its foundation, a "government" whose sole duty is to protect the natural rights of its voluntary members?"

I think it is possible to create such a thing, but that it is very unlikely it will remain so limited for long. The longer it exists, the more money will flow toward it, and the more you will see mission creep and empire-building. That is what humans in power do, even if their power base is initially voluntary. In the long run, the protectors will become the tramplers. "Protection implies submission."

"Are you certain that people slaughtering each other over trifles to the benefit of a few is not "natural law"?

It may well be a natural law. However humans are not as limited as other organisms. We have culture, technology, science, communication. In effect, we can modify natural law. That is why tyranny today does not look like the tyranny of the Assyrians; the parasite class has had to evolve to stay ahead of technology and culture. It's not a given that they will always stay ahead; in fact the trend appears to be in our direction. If everyone would just get on the Internet and buy a battle rifle, they'd be done. :-)