There is nothing that highlights more the uphill struggle faced by libertarians than an old joke which is directed at the economics profession in general:

How many economists does it take to change a lightbulb? None – the market will take care of it.

Unlike our statist counterparts, as proponents of the free market we have no precise design for the solutions of particular issues and problems. We do not have an energy plan, a transport plan, a housing plan or a healthcare plan. Rather, we believe that freely acting individuals, endowed with private property rights, will find the solutions that utilise the scarce resources that we have in the most efficient way possible. Indeed, when asked the (almost tiresome) question “who will build the roads?” we don’t, strictly, know that a free market will produce any roads whatsoever. There may, in fact, be some better transport solution that compulsory government road funding prevents us from discovering. This is, in fact, the entire point of the free market – that there is no grand, overarching plan with particular solutions that are imposed upon everyone else from on high. Moreover, any kind of centralised plan or desire for the government control of goods and services has always presupposed the existence of industries and products, such as roads, that were invented by freely acting individuals.

This key aspect of the free market – a complete lack of centralised design of products, services and entire industries – is not limited to the substantive configuration of resources. Rather, as we shall attempt to argue at length in this two-part series of essays, it extends also to the very concepts and institutions that uphold a free market order – in particular, laws, rights, property, non-aggression. Part of the question we wish to explore here, then, is if we, today, had to the opportunity to sweep aside the entire mantra of statist oppression, would the institutions that we put in its place be subject to some kind of design by libertarians or would they also be subject to some kind of decentralised action by freely acting individuals? In other words, would we come along and say “this individual has rights”; “this object is property”; “this act is aggression”? More potently, however, we need to explore whether the nature and origin of concepts such as rights, property, aggression, and conflicts lend themselves to some kind of conscious design or whether they depend upon the behaviour of freely acting individuals in order for their true meaning to be realised. Once we have determined this we will be able to conclude whether it is only by recognising the dependence of these concepts upon freely acting individuals that a genuine libertarian society be built.

Some readers will recognise that we are following here a line of epistemological thinking propounded by F A Hayek, mostly in Law, Legislation and Liberty, as to the appropriate use of rationalism in understanding and framing societal institutions – i.e., is our rationality, our ability to reason and to act purposefully, better suited to constructing and designing social institutions, or rather, are these institutions instead the product of some kind of “spontaneous order”? If the answer is the latter then the focus of our rational endeavours should be to gain comprehension, insight and understanding into elements of human interaction that have already been built and not to recreate these elements anew.

Let us begin with some simple examples in order to illustrate what we mean by this. The first example we shall use is language. Any language that we speak is a complicated thing, with lots of different words and lots of different rules for using those words. However, language itself and the very vast majority of specific languages were not invented explicitly by anyone. Rather, they grew up through millennia as a result of individual people striving to communicate ideas to each other. The meanings of words but also the concepts of sentences and grammar also developed without any centralised plan and before anyone acknowledged consciously the precise forms and structures they were using. For example, if, years ago, one of the first humans said “I will throw this ball”, neither he nor his partners in dialogue would have known explicitly that he was using a subject, a verb and an object to create what we now call a sentence. If he elaborated and said “I will throw this red ball” he would not have known that he just inserted what we now call an adjective. Yet anyone he spoke to would have understood the ideas that he was trying to communicate in the sentence. Moreover, if he tried to say something like “ball thrown I red” those listening to him would probably recognise that he was talking utter nonsense – but they would not necessarily be able to say precisely why this sentence is wrong. Indeed, even the idea behind concepts such and nouns and verbs probably never even entered these people’s minds – in the same way that they do not explicitly enter the minds of the vast majority of people who communicate through language today. It was only after many centuries of languages being used and developed that linguists came along in order to study the phenomenon of language systematically and to develop the rules and concepts of grammar, writing and speech. Yet, crucially, the role of the linguist or grammarian was not to invent or design these rules, or to reconfigure language as a whole. Rather, his role was to gain insight and understanding into a process that already existed – to gain rational comprehension of a phenomenon that was of no single human’s construction. For example, an adjective is a particular concept that concerns the use of words in order to describe nouns. For example, a red ball; a tall boy; an old lady. By calling these words adjectives the linguist did not invent the concept of an adjective. Rather, the concept itself already existed as a phenomenon of human interaction for which the linguist only provided a label for us to identify it and distinguish it from other phenomena. Thus the label “adjective” aids the endeavour of gaining rational insight and understanding into the phenomenon of language and does not amount to the construction of anything that was not already there. If, on the other hand, linguists tried to reinvent these concepts or to attempt to apply them to other phenomena then we can see easily that we would run into all sorts of trouble. Let us imagine that a budding, pioneering linguist comes along with the aim to reinvent the rules of language, to undergo a reconstruction in order make it more coherent and, no doubt, more “rational”. After all, he is a scientist of the human race, a race that has managed to build everything from enormous craft that fly into space all the way down to tiny computers that fit into your hand. Surely he can master the design of something as simple as how we speak to one another? Let us say that he decrees that an adjective should describe not the noun in a sentence but, rather, the verb. So in the sentence “I will throw this red ball” this linguist would claim that the word “red” should actually describe the verb “throw” – so that the quality of throwing is, in some way, red. Or in the sentence “I will drink this hot coffee” the word “hot” describes the act of drinking rather than the condition of the coffee. Clearly such a reinvention would lead to utter nonsense and a complete breakdown of the purpose of language, which is the successful communication of an idea, i.e. making yourself understood by another party. The concepts that the linguist identifies, such as adjectives, are not open to his reconstruction – to him they are phenomena that already exist as a given, much like the fact that the sun rises and water flows down. The only difference is that the phenomena associated with language arose out of the interaction of many millions of human beings across centuries rather than straight out of the natural world. These concepts the linguist identifies describe a strand of reality that are already there for him to identify and to understand; any attempt by him to impose an alternative meaning or definition of these concepts results in something completely different from their original nature.

Whether or not alternative languages can, in fact, be designed, is beside the point. Languages have been designed explicitly, with Esperanto being the most notable, although any designed language has failed to gain any significant use. Our point here, however, is that existing languages are not the product of design or reinvention and that the concepts we use to identify and understand them are also not invented phenomena. Our attempt to engage in such a reinvention must necessarily result in something completely different from that which already exists.

In order to explore this further let us take another example of a social phenomenon such as prices. Indeed, prices are a classic example of a social institution that, unlike language, has been subject to a kind of constructivist reinvention. The phenomenon of prices appeared as a result of millions of private, bilateral transactions millennia before anyone actually stopped to determine what prices actually were and how individual prices are set at the levels they are. Just as the linguist used his capacity for rational analysis to determine the elements of language, so do did the economist approach the concept of prices with the desire to comprehend and gains insights into this reality, not to construct anything new (an endeavour which was only accomplished sufficiently after the realisation of the law of marginal utility). What was learnt was that a price is the exchange ratio between two goods that results from the competing valuations of those who supply a good versus those who demand it with another good (usually money). The specific price is set between the valuations of the marginal buyer and the marginal seller. The effect of a price at this level was that the willing supply and willing demand for a good were equalised.

What happens, however, when we deflect our rational thinking away from gaining comprehension of this phenomenon and embrace, instead, the desire to gain control of and “create” or (as economists usually say) “fix” prices? This false, constructivist approach looked only at surface level phenomena of prices that were manifest in the fact that the act of pricing was largely carried out by entities that were sellers of commodities and buyers of labour – in other words, businesses. This, aided by other confusions such as the paradox of value – the conundrum as to why a diamond costs more than water when the latter is infinitely more useful to mankind – led to the conclusion that prices were simply declared (as opposed to estimated) by sellers and/or were merely the arbitrary and capricious results of unrestrained greed. It would follow from these falsehoods that the price of a good could be manipulated at will or established by decree. Yet it is clear that this conception of prices has entirely different ramifications from the previous one that we outlined. With these new, constructed prices their ultimate influence is not the individual interactions of all of the millions of people attempting to fulfil their purposes but rather the preoccupations of those who decree them (i.e. the state), which are mainly political. Most of the famous cases of price fixing were designed to counteract the effects of rampant inflationism, such as the Emperor Diocletian’s fourth century Edict on Maximum Prices and President Nixon’s price and wage controls in the 1970s. The results of these prices too are markedly – even catastrophically – different. If the decreed price is too high relative to the price that would be set by supply and demand then an unsold surplus of the good would accumulate; if the price was too low then a chronic shortage would ensue. In both cases the quantity demanded and the quantity supplied are shifted out of balance, resulting in economic turmoil – as it was in the 1970s when Nixon’s price controls exacerbated the effects of the OAPEC oil embargo, leading to an acute shortage of gasoline (which, of course, promoted further government intervention in the form of selective government rationing, the 55mph speed limit and the moral degradation that occurs as a result of the destruction of the supplier/customer relationship).

Under both conceptions of prices – the un-designed and the designed – all of the surface phenomena of prices are constant. Price tags are still on the goods (if there are any goods) and money still changes hands. Yet it is clear that the difference between the two concepts is to encapsulate two entirely different strands of reality that each have vastly different origins and motivations, and vastly different consequences. In moving from the first conception to the latter, the concept of price has been changed from meaning the exchange ratio that results from the interaction of supply and demand to basically meaning the exchange ratio that is ordered by the state.

It is clear from this, therefore, that a concept, such and nouns, verbs, prices, which developed as a result of human interaction, cannot simply be changed at will or by agreement without entirely undermining its essence. Indeed with prices not even an explicit agreement amongst all of the consenting citizenry as to what a particular price should be would circumvent this fact because the resulting exchange ratio would still not accord with the reality that the concept of price tries to capture, which is the exchange ratio that results from supply and demand. What we can also begin to see is that any attempt to redesign or reconstruct these phenomena destroys their service for free, individual people and instead places them at the service of the state and is therefore antithetical to liberty. We can see this more clearly in a third example of this type of concept which is money itself. The phenomenon of money – the generally accepted medium exchange – appeared through millions of bilateral exchanges before anyone stopped to think about precisely what they were doing when they handed over, say, lumps of metal like gold or silver in exchange for stuff they could eat or use as shelter. Money was something created as a result of human interaction but nobody designed or invented money. The product of this was a medium of exchange that served reliably as a store of value, as a unit of account and as a major bulwark of sustainable economic progress. All of the monetary issues we experience today – the business cycle, inflation, and a grossly unstable financial system – stem from the attempt to recreate the concept of money as something that is created and enforced by the state, an endeavour that has not only resulted in the catastrophic effects we just outlined but also a tremendous loss of liberty as governments have been able to fund their bloated operations without resort to regular taxation.

Bearing all of this in mind, then, what is the nature of other sociological concepts which form the core of libertarian theory? These are concepts such as property, rights, obligations, laws, conflicts, and aggression. Are these phenomena which appeared gradually over many hundreds of years through social interaction? Or were they the explicitly designed product of, say, a wise and benevolent ruler who sought to create order out of chaos? We shall argue here that concepts such as rights and obligations are indeed of the same ilk as prices – they appeared over millennia as a result of millions of humans attempting to fulfil their individual purposes. The concepts were not the product of explicit, human construction; rather, they were a reality that already existed before anyone consciously thought of the matter. The purpose of our rationality is to reflect upon this reality, understand and comprehend what was occurring, and from this understanding fashion these concepts in order to explain and describe this reality. Any attempt to reconstruct them anew will, as we shall see, destroy their real value to the freely acting individual and instead place them in the service of the state.

Let us recall that the question of rights and property only arise because of conflicts that result from scarcity – the fact that two or more individuals cannot satisfy their ends owing to shortage of means. Rights and obligations over physical matter that is designated as “property” are the solution to these conflicts. In other words, rights and obligations only arose because individual, rationally acting beings, incurred a reciprocal recognition in a particular situation that physical means available were not sufficient to satisfy the ends of each, hence one had to yield and refrain from action and the other could act. The source of a conflict was the fact that one of the parties would have to suffer a loss of *value* – and end worse than the one he sought – if he had to yield to the other party, who, in turn, would have his value realised. These conflicts and their prescribed resolutions are endemic to the situation of humans as social animals. It is highly unlikely that two humans ever interacted without running into some kind of conflict over scarce means, particularly as primitive man suffered from the scarcity of the most basic of needs far more than we do today. Hence social rules are likely to be as old as humans themselves. These conflicts and their resolution through a system of rules began long before anyone actually explicitly enunciated that which was occurring. Indeed the words “rights”, “ownership” and what they were may not even have been known to anyone who sought them, in much as the same way as no one knew what a verb or a noun are until long after people actually began to communicate through language. Nobody at any point woke up one morning and said ‘Gosh, I believe it would be awfully nice if everyone had the right to private property!” as if it was an entirely new creation, nor did anyone ever explicitly “agree” the same thing. The earliest rules were probably acknowledged and understood tacitly with communication through body language. Later, as the earliest civilisations were born, customary legal systems developed through appeals by the conflicting parties for adjudication by a plurality. They made this appeal because, in the long run (and according to their own valuations), ad hoc conciliation is uncertain while resolution by violence is both uncertain and costly and dangerous. Indeed, we might say that although this process requires a degree of reflective ability of the plurality’s members, the legal rules and principles that crystallised depended upon a) their ability to address the situation that identified by the rational actors to which they need to be applied, b) the willingness of the parties to yield to them and thus avoid violence, and c) their ability to serve as a guide to behaviour in order to avoid similar incursions in the future. Crucially, there was no centralised force that had the authority to either decree or enforce the law, such authority, where it existed, resulting from usurpation. Rather, adjudicators had to earn and maintain their reputation in the knowledge that parties could seek justice elsewhere and that they – the adjudicators – might too, one day, be involved a conflict and stand to be judged. To this extent, therefore, the dispensation of impartial and principled justice resulted from self-interest. Indeed, we might say that the whole edifice of consistently and impartially applied legal rules existed solely because, in the long run, these things were the cheapest option for people to fulfil their ends. In other words, that agreeing to resolve conflicts peacefully through a system of rules was, in the long run, the best way for people to maximise their wellbeing. The result of this was, of course, the development of society – the peaceful co-operation between individuals seeking to fulfil their needs and better their lives.

Indeed, it is important to stress that a well ordered and functioning society was the product of customary social rules and was not their precursor – the peaceful resolution and avoidance of conflicts is what permits social co-operation, either primitively or under the division of labour, to flourish, and it only did so because people desired it. “Society” did not come first in order to fashion and enforce the law or to determine what conflicts were and where they existed and how everybody should behave. We are tempted to address this chicken and egg problem differently today because “society” precedes us and so we also think that it precedes our rights and obligations; we were born into an existing social order that seems to grant and impose these things on us from on high. It certainly true that latecomers to a social order, who, like us, were born in succeeding generations or were formerly outsiders, were likely to find themselves bound by previously enunciated rules. However, the origin of those rules was the perception of conflicts by individual, rationally acting people. So when, today, for example, we extrapolate from these past cases and say that a particular right applies to me and to everyone else in the world it is true that these rules and concepts predated anyone who is alive today so that it appears as though somebody else is either granting us these rights or enforcing these obligations upon us. But even today we can see that rights, obligations and conflicts must originate from the minds of the parties to the dispute that the legal rule seeks to solve. Strictly speaking when we say that “I have the right to private property” what I am really saying is that this right would be enjoyed by me in a hypothetical case where I enter a conflict over a particular good. But just as in the pre-historic cases that crystallised the concept of a right, this conflict would have to be perceived by me in order to be a breach of my rights. Someone taking my property is not theft unless I do not want them to take it; if I am perfectly fine with it then my right is not infringed (indeed, in a world where everyone helped themselves to each other’s stuff as they pleased and everyone had no problem with it no one would even know what a right to private property was). Rape is only rape because a woman (or a man, even) does not want to be penetrated; if he/she doe then it is sexual intercourse. One person injuring another is only assault because the latter does not wish the former to injure him; if the injury is the result of a consensual contact sport or an unusual sexual fetish then it isn’t. A person’s free speech is only infringed because he wants to speak. If, on the other hand, he is an uncontrollable blabbermouth who talks before he thinks then he may welcome the occasional physical restraint from speaking. In all of these cases where the physical act is consensual there is a harmony of interests – the scarce, physical matter available is directed an end that is sought by both parties and thus there is no conflict. The question of rights only arises, however, when the two parties are trying to direct physical matter towards different ends (and also, we might add, when the cost of resolving the matter in this manner is less than the cost to the plaintiff of fulfilling his ends with other means; if you steal from me a paperclip it is probably cheaper for me to buy a new one than it is to sue you for it; the history of fencing laws is illustrative of the changing economic dimension of rights and obligations). In short, because it is my right it is my choice to waive it when someone else’s goals with the same, physical matter are identical to mine.

Let us re-emphasise, therefore, that the nature of these concepts – rights, obligations, conflicts and so on – were revealed to us through rational reflection upon social interaction, and the distillation of common elements and their justification according to common principles uncovered – not created – the formulae that we libertarians cherish today, such as the individual’s right to private property.

Let us turn now to a different, constructivist conception of what rights and obligations may be – that is that these concepts were deliberately created or invoked by specific persons such as monarchs, leaders or intellectuals. It is clear that if the origin of a proposed right is not the resolution of a conflict arising from the competing valuations that exist in the minds of the parties, it must, rather, be something else. There are only two possibilities. First, a third party constructs a right according to what he hypothesises is a conflict between the parties over the property in question when there is in fact no such conflict. In other words, rather than being a party to a conflict himself, this third person looks upon the condition of other people and declares that they are in a conflict with each other that needs to be corrected with a system of rights. The second possibility, which is joined at the hip with the first, is that the conflict over property results from the valuations of a third party or of a group (such as intellectuals) who call for the construction of rights and obligations according to their own direction. In other words, these people want to distribute property rights according to what they want rather than what everybody else wants when everyone else may, in fact, be living in perfect accord with one another. In both cases the concept of a right has been changed from the resolution of a conflict over scarce, physical goods as perceived by the parties into being the resolution of a conflict over the same goods perceived by somebody else. Your rights and obligations are no longer determined by what you, as a freely acting individual want and value; rather they are defined by some other person. This is something that is markedly different, something that changes not only the definition of a right itself but also the definition of specific rights.

An exaggerated example of the first type of “right” – one that is simply imposed – is a right of each person to air. Intuitively, a right to air sounds more than plausible – after all, a person will live for barely minutes if he is not able to breathe. Surely, as some pioneering progressive might say, it is a travesty of justice that we do not all have a right to something as basic as air?! Under the state’s self-appointed mantle that it needs to ensure that we all have enough air to breathe, perhaps we can imagine exclusion zones round each other’s bodies which no one else may breach in case they breathe “your” air in the zone. Or, needless to say, we could imagine countless other ridiculous “solutions” to this non-problem. Rights to air do not exist, of course, because nobody (yet) conflicts over particles of air. The supply is more than sufficient to meet each person’s need without anyone ever coveting the air breathed by someone else. Hence rights and obligations in this scenario are superfluous and any invocation of them is an unwarranted affront to people’s perfectly peaceful behaviour. (The contrary case – that of taking away rights when they are, in fact, demanded, such as with rights to own animals that are members of an “endangered” species – is of the same ilk, but we need not deal with that here).

With the second type of constructed rights, let us take the right to private property which protects one against, say, theft. If, in order to “protect” my property, this right is no longer defined according to my valuation as to how I best want my property directed – i.e. my willingness to “exercise” my right – it must be defined by reference to something else. This can only be what the imposing party, or his intellectual advisers, regard as their valuation as to how the property is best directed. The resulting prohibited action is no way a vindication of my right to private property at all – if I am perfectly happy for my property to be taken in a particular incident and this is clearly evident then there is no discord between me and the alleged thief, nothing that the imposition of a right needs to solve. What has in fact been accomplished is the voiding of a transaction that the imposing party disapproves of according to his valuations at the expense of the valuations of me and the person who took my property. The critical element required for a generation of rights and obligations – a competing valuation over scarce, physical goods – is held by the imposing party, not by the constructed “rights” holder (i.e. me). Hence, the de facto right – i.e. the ability to have property directed to ends according to which one desires – is also held by the imposing party, not by the constructed rights holder, for it is really the imposing party’s valuation regarding this particular piece of property that is vindicated. Theft has now been constructively redefined from meaning a conflict between a property owner and a person who takes it, into a conflict between those two parties and the state. This is clearly anti-libertarian as it subsumes the desires of all of individual people and permits the imposing party to direct everyone else’s property to its desired end. The result is practically the same as the government simply outlawing certain types of voluntary trade, such as drugs or prostitution.

What we will proceed to explore in part two of this series of essays is precisely how this state of affairs – the movement from rights as a product of human interaction to being a product of explicit construction – came about and how devastating it can be to individual liberty.


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