While proponents of liberty are often to be found waxing lyrical about its virtues, it is worthwhile taking a step back and discussing what liberty actually means –  that is, rather than attempt to explain why it is just, how do we define it in such a way as to distinguish it from other political philosophies?

First, let us discuss what liberty is emphatically not. It does not mean that one should be able to live a life free of any of the obstacles that humans are burdened with by nature. So for example, “freedom” from hunger, from poverty, from sickness, from the cold, the rain, and so on are all freedoms that humans can achieve only through their power over nature and through the utilisation of nature’s resources in order to provide relief from want. They are problems that would confront any human even if he was the only being in existence and to say that we “need” these freedoms is to state the obvious truism that we do not live in the Garden of Eden. Rather, liberty is a sociological concept – it refers to the relationship that arises between humans in the same world, not between humans and nature. This equivocation is frequently taken advantage of by those whose political orientations are far from libertarian. Not only, for example, is taxation and redistribution justified to provide “freedom” from the very things that we just listed but so too do our political lords and masters abuse the term when discussing the rights that they are kind enough to grant us. The so-called “right to life”, for example, can mean anything from not being killed by another human to the provision of food and shelter to sustain it. A vaguely defined right to “privacy”, i.e. to be left alone by everyone else, has to be “balanced” by my right to “security”, which requires resources from nature in order to achieve it.

Neither also does liberty mean surrendering oneself to some kind of “spontaneous order”; properly understood, the concept of such an order refers to institutions that emerge indirectly as a result of individual humans each pursuing their own unique ends, as opposed to through the direct design or agreement of any handful of them. Money is a case in point. The concept does not warrant the likening of society to some kind of biological organism (where the individual cells and organs have no independent will) nor does it mean that order unfolds in a manner akin to evolution or natural selection, a process that (excluding the possibility of divine intervention) is inherently purposeless. Such analogies are metaphorical in the very strictest sense.

Rather, the sociological concept of liberty arises because a human’s life must be led by using the resources of nature to further the ends that he desires. Individual humans, however, run into conflicts over how these resources should be used as they each want to use the same resources towards their own, competing ends. In other words these resources are interpersonally scarce. This is the starting point of all political philosophy – how to resolve conflicts that arise from the scarcity of resources in the world. Indeed, all political philosophies are little more than attempts to solve this problem. The rights that derive from these solutions are property rights, the strongest of which is ownership – the granting of the power of disposal over a scarce resource to one person at the exclusion of all others. There are two key aspects that we can deduce from this fact. First, those philosophies that view property as oppressive or as an affront to liberty simply dismiss the sociological problem rather than answer it. To outlaw any property at all keeps everyone in the original position of conflict in which we are all fighting over resources. Similarly, abolishing property because it “stops everyone” from using a resource simply begs the question – a property right has to be granted precisely because everyone cannot use the resource. Any widespread attempt to abolish property has merely fallen subject to the “iron law of oligarchy” where a few elite caretakers administer the resources and have to determine the uses to which they are put, with any residual “right” that the Average Joe has to a resource remaining as an empty, hollow shell. Any incisive concept of liberty, therefore, has to accept that other people’s desires to use the means available will be an obstacle in one’s own life and hence it must utilise the concept of property. Secondly, it shows why all consequentialist or utilitarian arguments that attempt to show us why “we” are “better off” with liberty than some alternative miss the point. For the precise problem is that we all think that there are different consequences that are better than someone else’s and so we need to decide whose consequences should prevail with the scarce means available.

The essence of liberty, then, is in how it defines property rights – quite simply, that you are entitled to the ownership of your own body and the external matter of which you are the first user-occupier or the latter’s voluntary successor in title. No one, therefore, can act violently against your own body or against the previously ownerless matter that you brought into use or acquired in trade through voluntary exchange. Within this sphere of ownership you can do anything you want. No, as a free individual you will not have a guaranteed freedom from hunger, from sickness, old age, death and so on (although the free market has been shown to increase a human’s power over nature more than any other system). And the same rights held by every other human will get in your way from time to time, if not all of the time. But only by defining liberty in this manner can libertarianism address the scarcity problem and be ideologically distinct from other attempts to do the same. The justice of liberty defined this way is, of course, another matter.

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