On process and scarcity

Occasionally I’ve weighed in here on the process versus substance debate, generally on the side of substance. My partiality towards substance is not based simply on some assessment that it is more important than process. It’s more that, after years of effort trying to work on theories of process, it became clear that process was a dead end, especially (right and left) libertarian process. By dead end, I mean that you can’t actually generate a procedural system that doesn’t involve forcing other people to do things they don’t want to do, absent global unanimous consent.

Where the procedural libertarians (both right and left) go wrong is that they never fully appreciate the constraints imposed upon us by scarcity. When I say scarcity, I don’t mean not having enough total resources to go around; rather, I mean more narrowly the fact that a given resource cannot be used or occupied by more than one person at the same time. To put it more simply: two people cannot consume the same exact beer.

That the universe is bounded by that kind of scarcity has profound consequences for process. What if I want to drink the same beer you want to? How do we deal with that? We can certainly think of a process for dealing with that conflict that seems fair, reasonable, just, and so on. But will that process actually be non-coercive? Will it ever not force someone to do something they don’t want to do? No. If we both insist upon drinking that same beer, the resolution of the dispute will be forceful.

Now you can theorize around this force by saying that there is implied consent or that both consented at some prior point to some system for resolving beer conflicts. But that doesn’t really get you out of it. It merely explains why the imposition of the force against the immediate wishes of one or both of the parties is fair, reasonable, just, and so on.

It’s not just beer disputes that this applies to. It applies to every dispute centered upon the use of physical matter. Suppose I come to a house tomorrow occupied by other people and try to sleep in one of the beds usually used by the occupant. Now what? Again, you can certainly come up with fair, reasonable, and just rules that explain why force can be applied against me to keep me from using that bed, but it’s still coercive force that’s being applied. Even if there were thousands of surplus beds to go around, if I insist on that bed in particular (and the usual occupant does as well), the resolution of the conflict will be coercive.

You can try (and I invite you to do so in the comments) to get around this problem, but I am skeptical that anyone will be able to. Scarcity is real, and scarcity makes it impossible to resolve persistent conflicts over the use of matter non-coercively. Since building a politics based on procedural commitments that are foreclosed by the physical structure of the universe strikes me as odd, I tend to focus on the substantive components of a just system instead