I agree that it's a mistake to focus on the word "permissible." I was
responding to your post, which picked the word up from Callahan. This
whole issue nicely illustrates a problem I see running throughout
political theorizing, and especially libertarian political theorizing.
Libertarians, overwhelmingly Ts rather than Fs on the Myers-Briggs
(Kiersey-Bates) typology (you and I are exceptions), are drawn to
formulations in terms of principles and universals (I think I've heard
the phrase "The Party of Principle"), and thus to the language of rights
in particular. We want to believe--and many of us say--that, if the
initiation of force is wrong (impermissible), then it should never, ever
be done by anyone under any circumstances. You and I agree, at least,
that that's not a sustainable position. And there are more real-life
examples than the flagpole: You push someone out of the path of a
speeding bus, only to learn that she was intent on suicide. The ongoing
debate over children's rights, and perhaps abortion, owes much to this
rigidity of thinking.
We are all familiar with the horrors, or potential horrors, of arbitrary
power invested in a personal authority. (For many, possibly all, of us,
that starts in childhood.) So we laud the depersonalization of
authority, into impersonal bureacracies and systems of inflexible rules.
But libertarians know we can scarcely count on the IRS for greater
responsiveness than a monarch. Depersonalization and rigidity bring
their own set of horrors; we can all equally well think of examples of
rules inflexibly applied when humanity demanded a little discretion.
Some may see this as just a problem of needing to make the rules ever
more explicit; I expect that approach holds as little hope or appeal for
you as it does for me.
I think the solution here, as I suggested in my last Liberty article, is
not vacuously seeking some sort of compromise or balance between
flexibility and rigidity, personal and impersonal. The problem lies
rather, in my view, in monopolizing authority: Let no single individual
or institution be invested with that kind of power over others. Let the
market, through case law, find and reflect dynamically the judgments of
a society (in the same way that prices of other services reflect
"societal" judgments). Here is where we disagree. If I understand you
correctly, you believe that, since coercion will inevitably occur in any
society, there is no principled objection to a government. And if
governments indeed duly compensated people for damages, that would
remove part of the current difference from an anarchistic society
(leaving still the incentive and calculation problems for a protected
monopoly). But there is still an important difference, to my mind,
between showing up for a court appearance because the government will
punish you if you don't, and showing up because otherwise you aren't
guaranteed protection if another party aggresses against you. The old
omission/commission distinction, between taking food from a starving man
and refusing to give him a sandwich.
You count on "demands" against government to effect change; as far as I
can see, such demands are nearly always impotent, and they are rapidly