The Nature and Origin of Rights, Part Two

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In part one of this two-part series of essays we explored the difference between treating social phenomena such as rights, obligations, rules, laws and conflicts as products of human interaction on the one hand and as products of explicit human construction on the other. In this second part we will proceed to explore precisely how the constructivist-rationalist approach to social phenomena came about and how devastating it can be to individual liberty when it infiltrates political philosophy. From this we can learn some important lessons when it comes to developing and shaping our own libertarian theory.

Generations after customary legal systems developed through social interaction, philosophers began to reflect upon this phenomenon, a reflection which, for Western purposes, began with the Ancient Greeks. In accordance with our view here, the purpose of this endeavour should not have been for philosophers to treat these matters as a tabula rasa on which to scribe whatever they thought was the most convincing and compelling case for a system of rules. Rather, it was to clarify that which was already occurring and to make explicit a conceptual framework that was already implicit. Indeed, as we stated earlier, this is common among most human endeavours – science, art, mathematics, economics, language and so on all flourished before we stopped to think about what we were actually doing in each of them. The fruit of this reflection was to distil from legal systems common elements such as conflicts, legal personage, property, rights, obligations, malum in se and some kind of understanding of natural justice. Thus, there existed principles that appeared to transcend expediency, self-interest, and the particular time and place, in spite of the fact that individual conceptions or realisations of those concepts differed. In other words, they were principles that were not just fashioned by leaders, intellectuals, or by “society” but spoke from some kind of universal plain. (This point should not be understood as a refutation of legal positivism. Rather, it simply says that the conceptual framework of legal systems – including the nature of a conflict and the rights and obligations that ensued – were not something that were designed and imposed).

However, this process of reflection and elaboration did not occur in a vacuum, and was (and still is) considered alongside a whole host of other philosophical problems such as knowledge, existence, morality, aesthetics, and so on. In the consideration of “the rules of conduct” there was a distinct overlap between what we might call political philosophy (broadly, what a person can be forced to do) and wider morality (that which a person should choose to do), an equivocation which has persisted to the present day. The process of identifying appropriate conduct – anything from morals, etiquette, manners, the attainment of beauty, happiness, and so on – always and necessarily involves elaborations on how rational actors should choose to behave with and towards non-rational beings/objects and towards other rational beings alike. When a proponent of certain moral rights and obligations overlaid these considerations onto the development of the understanding of legal rights (i.e. rights that could be enforced by violence) what resulted were systems of constructed conflicts, constructed rights and constructed obligations which never arose out of any interactions between individual parties.

If libertarians are to ever find the key that unlocks the door to a world of liberty, it is very important for them to understand the extent of the effects of this kind of endeavour and how it has served as the basis of countless numbers of despotic political theories. When someone constructs or proposes a system of rights and obligations and to prescribe legally enforceable rules of conduct, the result was not to engage in the process of “identifying” conflicts that exist between two other beings or objects; rather, it was to identify a conflict between himself and the particular person upon whom he claimed had an obligation. The conflict was a clash between the proponent’s values and the values of another or other individuals. In other words, the proponent sets himself up as the legally aggrieved party and bases the outcome of law and adjudication on some kind of a conflict between himself and somebody else who was behaving in a manner the proponent simply happened not to like.

Let’s say that there are three people Andrew, Bob and Charlie. Andrew and Bob are two people who live and interact in a society. Charlie, on the other hand, is a philosopher who looks upon the condition of A and B and decides for himself that Andrew owes a certain obligation to Bob. Let us say that, in order to create some kind of just and equitable society, Charlie declares that Bob should have the right to £100 of Andrew’s income every month. Andrew is therefore now burdened with an obligation of furnishing money to Bob, who now possesses the right to take this money from Andrew with the full backing of the force of law. However, the real right claimed in this situation is not by Bob. Andrew and Bob may have been perfectly happy before Charlie came along; Bob may have been content with his own income and coveted nothing that Andrew possessed. Rather, the real, substantive right is claimed by Charlie. It is Charlie who does not like the situation that Andrew and Bob are in – it is he who despises the existing property arrangements between the two. What Charlie is therefore claiming through his proposal is his right to go to court every time some action he does not like has occurred and to invoke his right to have this action stopped (or conversely to force an action that has been omitted). This desire of Charlie’s is masked in the language of providing justice and fairness for Bob, whereas Bob, in his own mind, never conflicted with Andrew at all and never had reason to invoke a right. The conflict originates wholly in Charlie’s mind.

This becomes clearer when Bob is not another competent adult but is, rather, an animal or an object. An object – let’s say a tree – as far as we know lacks any appreciation of ends, values and choices, and cannot understand any alternative situation as better, beneficial or valuable. Without being able to perceive value or any preference of ends the crucial element for the source of a conflict with another individual is missing. If there is no conflict then there are no rights and obligations. It is for this reason that we owe rights to rational beings who think, value, choose and act but we do not owe rights to non-rational beings and objects who are utterly devoid of these capacities. If, therefore, Charlie comes along and says “This tree has a right to not be cut down” and that, consequently, Andrew has an obligation to not cut down the tree, it is clear that the real conflict over the state of the tree is not between Andrew and the tree; it is, rather, between Andrew and Charlie. The tree has no capacity to care whether it is remains standing, is cut down, or is burnt to the ground. It has no values, no choices, no ends. Rather, it is clear that the person who values the tree remaining upstanding is Charlie. Charlie is seeking, by declaring a pseudo-right for the tree, a real right for himself to have his values vindicated and for Andrew to yield to these values. In short, Charlie wants to force Andrew to comply with what he, Charlie, simply wants him to do.

Usually, theories such as those of Charlie do not confine themselves to individual cases such as that of Andrew and Bob, or Andrew and some object. Rather, Charlie is normally the proponent of a much wider theory of social behaviour as he perceives a conflict between his values and the values of practically everybody else. In other words, he is claiming his right to force everyone else to conform to his grand vision of society. There can be no greater example of this kind of reconstruction of sociological concepts than that furnished by Karl Marx through his espousal of the so-called exploitation theory. Marx analysed the voluntary capitalist/employer relationship according to the equivalence of its surface phenomena with those of previous non-voluntary relationships such as serfdom, explaining the motivations, mechanics, and outcomes of this relationship with a series of fictions such as the harmony of class interests and distortions of several tenets of classical economics. From this, his labour theory of value leads to the conclusion that employer’s profit is “surplus value” appropriated from the labourers. Marx himself was careful to explain his theory as a scientific, economic theory that must be properly refuted in a scientific manner. However it is clear that he is inviting the specifically ethical conclusion that profit is theft, a conclusion to which his followers so willingly succumbed. The question of whether Marx’s scientific conclusions were the slave of his political preoccupations rather than vice versa is debatable. Either way, however, we can see that the effect of Marx’s de facto reinvention, his deliberate reconstruction, of the concept of theft was to urge the establishment of a property order that he desired – the abolition of the private ownership of the means of production – rather than that desired by everyone else. In short, he invented a conflict between two great swathes of the population that was not in any way perceived by the parties themselves. This theory, this constructivist intrusion into social phenomena, went on to enslave half of the globe for nearly a century and resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people. This trait or technique of reconstruction was not limited to Marx, however. Indeed, pretty much every significant contribution to socialist theory which denigrated the capitalists and entrepreneurs as thieves and parasites was made by middle class onlookers and observers; the working class themselves did not seek any right to protection from any alleged “theft”. So too did the backlash against the conditions of industrial workers in the nineteenth century receive its main championship from middle class intellectuals such as Charles Dickens, Lord Salisbury and Sidney and Beatrice Webb – busybodies who fought for people’s so-called rights without ever stopping to think whether or not those people wanted them. This is not to say, of course, that workers – the constructed rights holders – would not have willingly championed the apparent invocation of “their” rights. After all if someone comes along saying you can effectively have your cake and eat it you are hardly going to complain. This can be seen clearly today with the advocacy of minimum wages. Employees are lulled into thinking that there can be higher, nominal wages and plenty of jobs to go round whereas economic theory tells us that floors on wage rates are likely to lead to a shortage of available jobs and, hence, unemployment. If, however, you understand the concept of demonstrated preference – an “Austrian” insight that informs us that people’s valuations are revealed by how they act and not what they say – you would realise that their actual valuations were otherwise and they are, in fact, perfectly happy to accept full employment with lower wage rates, or “poor” working conditions. Anything they say otherwise amounts to little more than wishful thinking or whimsical dreaming of an alternative but unrealisable reality.

It is true, of course, that constructivist political theories may be motivated by a genuine concern for and desire to help people. But whether this is true or not any political theorist is rarely honest enough to say that his vision simply imposes his values upon everyone else. Usually this imposition is disguised through a convolution of pseudo-concepts and dogmas, the “exploitation theory” in Marx probably being the most prominent. Other noteworthy examples are the so-called “original position” and “veil of ignorance” in John Rawls. People in the real world do not want the kind of ethics that Rawls espouses so he has to invent a fictional world with fictional situations and fictional motivations in which they do. Indeed Rawls is blatant enough to admit, in A Theory of Justice, that he fashions these pseudo-concepts in such a way as to give him the answer that he wants. Such reconstructions and reinventions are evident, though, in pretty much all collectivist philosophies in which society is deemed to have “failed” to direct its resources in ways demanded by the theory’s proponent. It is evident too in all claims of so-called “market failure” – that the choices of purposefully acting individuals have gravely decided to devote their resources to some feeble end rather than to something “better” and “higher” that exists in the mind of the proponent. Furthermore the imposing party is never starkly identified as being the proponent himself, but, rather, his proxy the state (even if the goal is, like that of Marx, an eventual withering away of the state). It is the state which is tasked with bringing the ends desired by the proponent into being so that what results is that the state itself becomes the true rights holder and everyone else is obliged to succumb to the state’s self-enforcement of its right to bring about the proponent’s vision. Any people who happen to benefit from this, although they may be described as “legal rights holders” (for example those who have a “right” to claim state unemployment and sickness benefits), do not possess any real, fundamental rights at all but are, rather, incidental beneficiaries. In modern democracies, Charlie, the philosopher from our example earlier, is not any one individual but is, rather, the majority, who claim the right to force everyone else to adhere to that which they want (assuming, of course, that democracies really do enact the ends sought by the majority, which is highly doubtful). This majority may have a revolving membership from issue to issue or from election to election but the principle is the same as when that which is desired and imposed upon everyone else originates in the mind of a single person such as Charlie.

Unfortunately, and of more direct relevance to libertarians, none of this changes with libertarian and proto-libertarian theories that are themselves motivated chiefly by the desires of their proponents – that the free market will rapidly increase societal wealth by more than we can imagine; that it makes for an affluent and prosperous society; that humanity will achieve its greatest, hitherto unimaginable endeavours, etc. These theories usually have the benefit, unlike collectivist theories, of actually being able to accomplish their aims. However, their weakness lies in the fact that they accept the same basic premise as all the other theories, which is that the desirable goal is that which is posited by the proponent of the theory. All of these proto-libertarian theories set up the wellbeing of “society” as the ultimate aim; freedom of the individual is only the means of achieving society’s betterment. By defining liberty in this way, no genuine, fundamental rights are conferred upon the individuals and they are flimsily contingent upon their contribution to the goal. In other words, the possibility, however unlikely, is left open that if the goal could be achieved through some way other than the free market then these rights and freedoms could be withdrawn. For example, if we discovered, by magic, a way to make central planning the most conducive method of generating economic progress then any libertarian theory which promoted freedom based on its ability to raise the standard of living would crumble to dust. Yet no doubt most libertarians would say that one possesses a right not to be murdered or stolen from regardless of whether such acts would increase or decrease the number of yachts we can each buy. The more basic problem, however, is why should conflicts be recognised with reference to any goal espoused by the proponent of a theory rather than with reference to all of the millions of goals and purposes that individuals strive to achieve? Man is a social animal, as the well-worn phrase goes, but he only participates in social co-operation to the extent that he feels he derives a benefit from it, whether this is material or simply a desire for companionship and friendly relations. Society, the growth of the division of labour, increasing capital accumulation and a rising standard living are the result of each individual person fulfilling his individual purposes through social co-operation; they are not the initial purpose themselves. Such a point is often countered by the argument that people should promote society if they wish themselves to flourish. Ludwig von Mises, for example, speaks of “rightly understood interests” which, in a footnote, he describes as “interests in the long run”, an ethical goal later adopted by his colleague Henry Hazlitt – interests which can only be fulfilled by preserving social co-operation under the division of labour. Although this is a far cry from imposing upon people their own lofty ends as other philosophies are wont to do, it overlooks the fact that people have a variety of localities and time spans, short and long, in mind for their own individual purposes. A person could be completely and utterly educated about the effects of the free market and totally convinced that these effects would be true. Yet it would not be inconsistent for him to still desire goals that we would regard as evil but would not have a destructive effect upon “society” (killing a single individual, or individuals based upon a common characteristic such as skin colour for instance); nor could anyone stop him from desiring goals that are detrimental to “society” only in the long run, perhaps after the particular individual himself has died; still further, however, he could have goals that confer a benefit in the short term and a detriment in the longer term, even to himself (such as smoking, for example) and he may be perfectly happy with this situation. And finally, he may desire goals even in the short run such as greater equality, and reduced affluence and materialism that are completely contrary to ends created by the free market. At the extreme, ecological fundamentalists pretty much want to decimate the entirety of the human race, including themselves, in order to preserve the sanctity of the natural world. Hence one cannot, in these instances, even invoke the golden rule or dismiss them as cases of special pleading.

None of this should be understood as a denigration of proto-libertarian theories which are often, on their own terms, entirely correct and certainly add moral weight to a case for freedom. They do, however, lack moral decisiveness. They are reduced to confronting collectivist theories with arguments about which purpose is better (or which means for fulfilling an agreed purpose are better), and only, at the very least, give the appearance of recognising that the real problem is, in fact, how to reconcile all of the billions of purposes of individual people.

It is true that if we were to refrain from indulging in any constructivist ideology which create rights and obligations fashioned by their proponent then this would not, in and of itself, be sufficient to generate strictly libertarian rights. One also has to explain why, for example, when a conflict is genuinely perceived by individual people, it must be answered in favour of the original property owner. But ascribing rights only to those who seek the valuable ends that their invocation brings about – a province exclusively of rational actors – considerably narrows the field by revealing competing theories for what they really are – the forced distribution of property according to ends valued by the proponent, together with the subordination of all of the billions of desires and purposes of individual people to the desires and purposes of the proponent.

We can see therefore that the greatest threat to liberty throughout history has been the redefinition and reconstruction of ideas and concepts that had a sociological origin. Concepts such as rights have been twisted and distorted from serving as vindications of the ends sought by individual people to serving as vindications of the ends sought by the authors of grand visions of society, visions which have, when implemented, resulted in poverty, destitution and societal degradation. In some ways this is just a more subtle version of the more explicit redefinition of a host of other concepts. A liberal used to be the equivalent of a libertarian; today, wearing such a badge would declare oneself as a socialist. If one is now a free trader, one is actually in favour of managed trade. Liberty is now social democracy, and so on. Even what is “human” has been redefined, through the exploitation of sub-categories such as races and ethnic or language groups, in order to justify ethnic cleansing or genocide on the grounds that the victims are “sub-human” or “vermin”. All of these are simply starker versions of the same constructivist methodology – the attempt to change the underlying reality of concepts to suit their own purposes. To embrace this kind of constructive rationalism, as Hayek called it, is of the same ilk as empiricism and positivism when applied to the social sciences – gross epistemological errors which vastly expand the scope of plausible social theories and lend credence to all manner of attempts at social engineering.

What can we, then, as libertarians learn from this when attempting to develop our own political theory? The most important lesson is that libertarianism is limited to distilling, from the phenomenon of social rules, basic, formal characteristics of these rules rather than their substantive content when they are concretised into actual legal rules that prevail in society. We might call these conclusions high-level political principles and concepts, an order higher than the actual legal rules that we are required to follow in our everyday lives. Some of the conclusions that we can draw legitimately are as follows:

  • Social rules arise to resolve conflicts born out of scarcity of means for attaining ends;
  • That rights and obligations apply to rational actors who possess the qualities of perceiving value, thinking, preferring, deciding, and acting to bring about a more favourable state of affairs;
  • Non-rational actors do not possess rights and obligations – they possess no ability to display moral choice nor the capacity to consciously prefer an alternative state of affairs; key requirements for rights – a perceived conflict and the ability to choose an alternative state of affairs – are therefore missing.

We are not going to proceed to justify these observations here, something which we have already done in an earlier series of essays on the scope of morality. Our concern here is to emphasise that these observations arise out of a reflective process upon the nature of social rules – we are attempting to describe a reality that is already there and not to construct circumstances that are new. When, having made and reflected upon these observations, we continue to define the uniquely libertarian content to social rules this too must also be stated in purely formal terms:

  • A rational actor has the right to own the matter that constitutes his body;
  • A rational actor has the right to own private property;
  • Consequently, no rational actor may invade, physically, the body or property of another.

Again, we will not attempt to justify these conclusions and will simply assume that, as libertarians, we all hold them to be true. Here, however, comes the crunch. What cannot be done is for pure, libertarian theorising to flesh out these formal rules with substantive content. In other words, we cannot, through theory alone, determine which situations are conflicts that need to be resolved. We cannot, by mere philosophising, identify precisely which beings are rational actors and are subject to rights and obligations, nor do we know precisely which actions are aggressive and which are perfectly peaceful. These questions are and always will be the product of the individual values, desires and the resulting perception of scarcity that arises when the means for fulfilling these values clash with those of someone else, factual situations which cannot be determined a priori. In most cases, the obviousness and typicality of aggressive behaviour answers the question for us. For example, stabbing another person in the heart is almost always an aggressive act whereas sitting motionless in your living room chair is not. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that these conclusions are determined by theorising. It is only because the ends that people seek through scarce, physical means clash when one is stabbed by another, and it is only because they do not clash when you sit quietly by yourself in a chair that we know stabbing someone is aggressive behaviour and that sitting alone is not. Whether there is such a clash of ends can only be determined by real people acting in the real world. If we lived in a bizarre world where stabbing another person was perfectly acceptable and everyone was, in fact, happy to receive a brutal stabbing then this would not be aggressive behaviour.

All of this becomes clearer when we consider borderline cases or cases where a typically aggressive act consists of the same kind of behaviour as an aggressive act. For example, the light from a person’s living room window that shines onto neighbouring properties at night is probably not aggressive behaviour, yet if the person was to illuminate his property like Times Square then it probably is. However, both acts consist of basically the same thing – light beams emanating from one person’s property onto another’s. So why is the first act peaceful whereas the second act is aggressive? How bright do the lights have to get before non-aggressive behaviour becomes aggressive? The answer is because nobody, typically, perceives any interference with their own property when you merely have your living room lights on at night, whereas they probably would perceive such an interference if you were to coat your house in flashing, neon lights. Again, the distinction between one and the other rests on the ability of humans to fulfil their ends with the property in question. If each person can go about his business in the belief that he is not being interfered with by another then there is no aggression, even though we may each be experiencing acts which are of a similar, but diminished nature to aggressive acts. Ethics are the product of human action (or, rather, interaction), and all human values that motivate this action appear in discrete concrete, steps – not infinitely small, indiscrete steps which can only be measured by scientific instruments. For example, if I am thirsty and to resolve this thirst I drink 0.00001% of the water in a small glass it is not very likely that I would feel myself to be 0.00001% less thirsty then I was before. Rather, after having imbibed such a useless and imperceptibly small quantity of water I am still, in my mind, fully thirsty and am in exactly the same position as I was before even though, scientifically speaking, the quantity of water in my body has increased. Given that ethics also depend upon human valuations it is no surprise that ethical distinctions are neither surgically precise nor infinitely small.

Is it the case, then, that libertarians are all at sea when it comes to determining the practical questions of precisely which acts are aggressive and which situations are conflicts that are resolved by libertarian rights? Can a libertarian justice system develop no jurisprudence whatsoever concerning which situations are unlawful and which are not? It is true, as we argued in an earlier series on libertarian legal systems, that courts must look to the actions of the parties in order to determine their values and intentions when judging the particular incident at hand. Actions, however, cannot be judged in a void. Rather, they are always interpreted according to their customary, conventional and social context. Over time, as a legal system develops, we can understand readily that the situations which come before courts or adjudicators again and again will be of the same ilk. In other words, courts will come to realise that certain situations are typically viewed by people as aggressive and other situations are not. It is this that provides for them the key to concretising the political principles we outlined earlier – that is, the right to self-ownership and to private property – into substantive legal rules that prescribe the precise situations that violate these principles. Let us take, for example, the deliberate killing of another individual. Although it is, in a hypothetical world, perfectly possible for everyone to be perfectly happy to be killed, our experience and the experience of the court in the real world informs us that in the vast majority of instances people do not, in fact, wish to be killed. Therefore, killing someone is, at the very least, presumed to be an aggressive act in all instances and (if it has been established beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant killed the victim) the burden falls on the defendant to adduce otherwise. In other words, the victim of a typically aggressive act does not need to prove to the court that the act in this particular situation was aggressive. Let us take, as a further for example, an alleged theft. People, typically, do not want their things to be stolen. If B asserts that C stole from him an item of property the court will hold that this act was prima facie aggressive if B can establish a prior title. However, if C can produce evidence of a superior title, such as a valid receipt for the goods that he took, then he rebuts the presumption.

It is for this reason that acts which consist of minute but generally innocuous physical invasions upon another individual’s person or property are not considered to be aggressive in all instances, even when one party genuinely feels as though his property has been invaded. Earlier we mentioned the case of light from a lounge lamp emanating from a window onto another person’s property. This happens to all of us; if we look out of our windows at night onto the street we can see dim lights from all the other houses. Most people do not give this a second thought as it does not interfere with their ability to use their own property. If, therefore, someone came before the court and alleged that such an act was aggressive, the court is likely to reject the claim simply because certain types of minor and virtually imperceptible physical invasions are deemed to be socially acceptable. And if the plaintiff has a particular susceptibility to the minor invasion then the burden should fall upon him to protect himself from it, and not upon someone else who is simply going about his daily business.

Other legal rules will be designed to sift out genuine conflicts from mere grievances after the fact. One of the justifications for statutes of limitations is that the elapse of an extended period time before initiation of a lawsuit is evidence of the fact that there was no real conflict. For example, if noise emanates from a neighbour’s property onto my own and I choose not to pursue a case against the neighbour within a certain amount of time stipulated by the court then the court may conclude that this elapse of time is evidence that that the noise was not perceived by me as invasive and I am not entitled to recover damages (such a fact may also be construed as evidence that I have granted an easement right to my neighbour to continue making the noise, so that not only can I not recover damages for the previous noise but that the neighbour can go on being noisy also – but this is a separate issue).

Legal rules begin to lose a degree of steadfastness and certainty where it is difficult for the court to establish objectively the relationship between the parties. One of the most pertinent examples in this regard is the crime of rape. The conflict inherent in rape is the lack of consent to sexual intercourse by the penetrated party. Yet establishing objectively whether such consent was either present or absent is fraught with difficulty because lawful sex and unlawful rape often emerge from similar circumstances and consist of the same physical act. Because of the traumatic and, often, life changing results for both a genuine plaintiff on the one hand and a falsely accused defendant on the other, any evidential rules that are determined are likely to be heavily contentious. Yet it is here where the influence of the shifting sands of the social context are most visible. When society was heavily patriarchal and placed a moral responsibility upon females to uphold their sexual virtue, the burden was upon the victim of an alleged rape to prove to the court that she had not consented to the sexual act. Indeed, at one point the law did not even recognise a forced, sexual act as rape if it took place between husband and wife. Nowadays, however, after women have gained a greater degree of social equality with men, we can see at least a creeping movement that places an increasing amount of the evidential burden on the accused to establish that consent was, in fact, present, rather than on the alleged victim to establish that it was absent. In other words, while the concept of rape as an aggressive act has remained in place, the precise legal rules surrounding it have changed as the social, customary and conventional context has changed.

What we can see from all of this is that courts and legal systems in a libertarian world would at no time design or construct concepts such as conflicts and aggression, nor would they pronounce from on high which acts are aggressive and which situations are conflicts. Rather, their jurisprudence is moulded by (ultimately) centuries of cases that have come before it, cases that are motivated by the real perception of conflicts by real, individual people attempting to fulfil their ends with the scarce means available. Although a latecomer born into a libertarian society after many generations would see only a plethora of rules seemingly dictated to him from a single source, their origin is, in fact, the heterogeneous, and decentralised values held all of the individual people that make up and have made up that society.

In addition to determining the distinctions between aggressive and non-aggressive acts, another area where this line of thinking comes into play is the distinction between beings which have rights and those which do not. As we outlined earlier, a being has rights if it is a rational actor, that is it is able to undertake actions that are motivated by thought, desire and choice as opposed to actions that are motivated wholly by the laws of physics or by instinct. The existence of rights is impossible in a situation where both the desire and ability to bring about alternative outcomes with the scarce means available is absent. With such an absence, the determination of outcomes is solely a product of might and inertia – the stronger force always winning – simply because there is no impetus to bring about any alternative. This is all that strict libertarian theory has to say about the matter. However, the question of precisely which beings are rational beings and thus enjoy rights cannot simply be a product of theory. It may be plainly obvious to see that a fully grown human adult, as a thinking, desiring, choosing and rational being will clearly be a rights holder while a dead plank of wood clearly will not be. But we only know this precisely because, at some point in history, the earliest humans experienced interpersonal scarcity and each consciously recognised certain possessions as belonging to him in order to meet his ends. Indeed, the most likely way in which we each recognised another human being as a rational entity that should possess rights is whether or not that being made an appeal for these rights to be upheld as this, itself, is a rational action to devote means towards ends. At first this was most likely made tacitly or through body language, aided by our empathy from being in exactly the same position as our neighbour. It is from this earliest seed that entire systems of rights and obligations between individual humans grew. No one at any point commanded from on high that “X has rights, Y does not have rights” and so on. Rather, because of our shared quality of acting rationally, our status as rights holders was enforced from the bottom up as we each sought to progress our lives by directing scarce resources to the uses that satisfy us the most. This brings into the foreground the question of marginal cases such as foetuses, children and higher primate animals. Let us take, for example, abortion. Libertarians are often chided for not having an agreed “solution” to the issue of abortion (as if everyone else is blessed by such agreement). Yet, as we have argued here, this disagreement is not one that is inherent in libertarian theory. Libertarian theory tells us only the qualities that a being has in order to enjoy rights. In an earlier essay, which focussed exclusively on the issue of children and abortion the present author suggested that this question must always be answered in the negative in regard to these beings – that it is so obvious that foetuses and very young children are incapable of acting rationally that they would only come to possess rights, probably in a graduated fashion, as they age. Yet whatever support could be mustered for such a position, it is not strictly a conclusion of libertarian theory. In contrast to this initial conclusion we went on to discuss in a second essay an alternative view which could also, in accordance with libertarian theory, grant rights to children. These questions – whether a particular being such as a foetus possesses those qualities – concerns the application of libertarian theory, not the theory itself. This application will also vary according to the social context, just as the precise acts which can be categorised as aggressive are dependent upon this context. A clear example of this is the changing nature of the rights of children. Even if we admonish the statist intervention into the family unit and the ridiculous and irreconcilable one-size-fits-all cut offs for when children can carry out such acts such as having sex, driving or drinking alcohol, it is tempting to say that it is obvious that children must be regarded as independent, human beings who at least have some rights. In other words, the rights of infants are a universal an immutable fact, independent of time and place. However, this could not be further from the truth. In pre-industrial, agrarian societies where the main economic unit was the family, children were regarded as little more than the property of their parents and their chief worth was their economic value, with any rights they had subsumed by the welfare of the family unit. Although research produced by scholars since the 1960s has indicated that child rearing was not brutal and parents did make sacrifices for their children to maximise their welfare such as care during sickness, the general attitude is hardly unsurprising in an epoch of extreme poverty characterised by persistent hunger, malnutrition and an infant mortality rate as high as one third of babies born. Indeed, we can surmise that telling a mother that she may legally kill her child may have been greeted with an acknowledged, if reluctant acceptance if there simply wasn’t enough food to eat and if the consumption of whatever resources were available was prioritised towards the able bodied population. The more familiar view of children as having an independent identity that accorded them certain rights was born during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, along with the romanticised view of childhood as an “age of innocence”. However, thoughts during this time were far from uniform. On the one hand, there was the nurturance or caretaker view which was, at its earliest, espoused by John Locke, and Thomas Spence’s “The Rights of Infants”, one of the first pamphlets to specifically consider the issue, is subtitled “Imprescriptible Right of MOTHERS to such a Share of the Elements as is sufficient to enable them to suckle and bring up their Young” (emphasis in the original). This work is written as a plea from the mothers of children to the aristocracy. In other words the rights advocated were of the mother to demand from the gentry the wherewithal to nurture her infant from the produce of the land and were not directly held by the child. The alternative view, that children have much more independent rights, became augmented and subsumed by the onset of industrial society (in which children often worked in factories and down mines), and the backlash of the middle class intelligentsia against the “squalid” and “destitute” conditions of industrial workers generally, a backlash that was itself subsumed by the descent into socialism and communism. Of course, what truly abolished child labour was not a call for children’s rights, but the fact that adults could produce enough wealth for a child to survive and flourish without the latter having to work. The right of a child not to labour and, instead to be supported by its parents, are, like any positive obligations, wholly dependent on there being enough wealth to accomplish this. Thus the specific rights, and to whom they applied, were very much a product of the socioeconomic context. For the sake of completion, we might as well mention that the development of children’s rights in the twentieth century has, unsurprisingly, been welded to the growth of the state and all of its catastrophes and calamities. The Declarations of the Rights of the Child, the precursor to the modern UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which is, as of this day, enshrined in international law, was drafted by Eglantyne Jebb, the founder of the charity Save the Children that was set up to alleviate the starvation and poverty of German and Austrian children as a result of the First World War, a war which would not have occurred without imperialism, state militaries, the drive to autarky, central banking, and so on. The creation of the welfare state and the subsequent disintegration of the family it has caused, together with government provision of education, have all served to make the rights and conditions of children a public affair.

It is not, therefore, a matter for theorists to determine from on high whether or not specific beings such as very young children or foetuses should have rights and what these rights, precisely, will be. In other words, libertarian theory does not demand that children and foetuses, nor any other specific being, have rights. Rather these rights, if they exist, will be generated from the bottom up and will depends very much on the customary, conventional and socioeconomic context. We explained in detail how a modern libertarian legal system may approach the question of the rights of children in this manner in our second essay dedicated to the topic and we will not repeat this in detail here. But we can mention briefly that a series of legal presumptions is likely to govern these rights. There is likely to be at least a legal presumption that a child is a rational being when it comes to the right to bodily integrity (so that a child may not be legally killed); further legal presumptions will grant further rights to children (i.e. to enter contracts, to drink, marry, enter employment, etc.) either at ages where the court has previously found children to be generally competent for these acts, or at ages or milestones which are important in the social context, such as the Bar Mitzvah in a Jewish community. One unique aspect of a libertarian legal system, however, is that these milestones need not be concrete or set in stone as the state makes most of them today. It may well be open to the child, or to another individual, to rebut the presumption. If, say, there is a legal presumption that a child cannot enter a contract of employment below the age of thirteen, a child below this age may contest any challenge to a prospective contract if he (or the prospective employer) can demonstrate to the court’s satisfaction that he made this decision in the manner of an adult – i.e. it was a rational choice to better his life. There should be no danger of a perpetual, enforced childhood in state run schools if the child is uniquely mature enough to seek a better life for himself. Conversely, if a child is mentally impaired the rebuttal may work the other way with the parents or guardians establishing before the court that, at a presumed age, the child is still not competent to undertake certain acts in his or her own right. Abortion may be more difficult but we can suggest, for example, that if advances in medical science reduce the amount of time for which a pregnancy has to elapse before the foetus is considered viable then the law may regard the foetus as a whole, legal person much sooner that it previously did. If and when we have the technology and are able to establish communication with some of the higher functioning animals, these too may be regarded as rights holders in at least limited circumstances. To repeat again, however, this discovery of certain animals as rights holders would be made as a result of the recognition of these animals as independent, rationally acting beings. The rights will be dependent upon what these animals want because we discover that they are able to want, to desire, to choose different outcomes and to act accordingly. Contrast this to the current statist enforcement of so-called “animal rights” from the top down. These rights are not really animal rights at all – they are the rights of certain people who claim to care about animals enforcing how they believe other people should act vis-à-vis animals. The benefit gained from a vindication of any of these “rights” exists in their minds, not in the minds of the animals.

This, then, is a suitable concluding note to emphasise from what this series of two, rather long, essays. That these phenomena – rights, obligations, conflicts, aggression and so on – serve to regulate the desires of individual, rationally acting beings, a regulation that is necessary to resolve the perception of scarcity that exists in these people’s minds. The existence and content of rights is driven by this impetus. Rights are not designed or constructed from on high by an intellectual in an ivory tower, nor are those who benefit from them assigned by a politician. Any attempt to design rights is akin to treating to individuals as pieces on a grand chess board – pawns in a game of shaping society according to what the intellectual or politician wants. Our conception of rights here is focussed firmly on vindicating the individual and, while it may appear as a limitation upon libertarian theory to answer certain precise and practical questions, ultimately strengthens it.


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Small States – the Key to Liberty?

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Although libertarians share a passion for personal liberty, free enterprise and the primacy of the individual over the collective, they can differ markedly over the precise role and scope of the state. The main division is between so-called minarchists on the one hand, who believe that there is a limited, justifiable role for the state in defining and preserving property rights, providing security and dispensing justice, and between so-called anarchists on the other who believe that the state, however minimal the services it provides, is always an unjustified invasion of individual liberty and that all defence, security and adjudicative services should be provided by the free market just like any other end.

This division is far from being a futile theoretical exercise and is, indeed, important in determining and clarifying the nature of libertarianism. The present author, for example, self-identifies as a Rothbardian anarchist who sees no justification for the state whatsoever and that anything else is antithetical to individual freedom. However, what we shall argue here is that there is another distinction that is likely to be much more important when it comes to the actual achievement of individual liberty in our world today. This distinction is not between how big or how powerful a state is within a given territory, but, rather, the size of that territory in the first place. That actually, a world of liberty will be achieved much more effectively if we concentrate on breaking up existing states into smaller states rather than trying to limit the scope of government within an existing, large state. Moreover, as we shall see, the realisation that smaller states are more conducive to individual liberty goes at least some way to abolishing any practical difference between minarchism and anarchism.

The vast, monolithic state is, in fact, a relatively new phenomenon. Germany and Italy, for example, consisted of much smaller territories and independent cities until the late nineteenth century; the United States was intended to be a union of smaller, independent, sovereign states, and the transformation of the US into a single, large state occurred informally as a result of the civil war and the gradual consolidation of sovereign power in Washington DC. Other large states were born out of independence from conquest with many simply being artificial lines drawn on a map by politicians. The latest experiment is, of course, the European Union which has, since the post war era, attempted to draw an increasing number of powers away from the capital cities of the individual member states and concentrate them in Brussels. This tendency of increasing the size of states has gone hand in hand with the gradual replacement of laissez faire with socialisation, statism, social democracy and increasing belligerence on the part of the resulting behemoth states. All of the vast conflicts of the twentieth century – the two world wars and the cold war – occurred after major consolidations and empires were in place. Today, we are left with the belligerence of the United States and its Western allies as they seek to control the Middle East and to quell the growing ambitions of Russia and China which are, of course, two more states that cover a vast territory.

There are several reasons why larger states erode liberty while smaller states tend to be more conducive towards it. The first and most obvious is that a larger state has access to a vastly greater sum of resources – more natural resources such as oil, gas, farmland etc. and, of course, a larger population to subject to tax slavery. Thus the large state is able to command relatively more wealth than a smaller state. The greatest impact of this is with regards to foreign policy. It is not likely, for example, that a territory the size of Monaco or Liechenstein would have the wherewithal to produce the military hardware of the United States. Even if its tax base could, in some way, pay for all of the necessary resources it would, in the first place, be heavily reliant upon foreigners who would have to supply, manufacture and then store all of the aircraft, tanks and missiles and so on. This conveys to foreign governments the power to restrict the military growth of the small state and with it all of the derivatives that accompany an increasing appetite for warfare such as suspension of civil liberties, freedom of the press, and so on. Indeed, in small states which are reliant upon foreign powers for their military equipment, such as Singapore, it is usually to the benefit of the foreign state to see the smaller state armed. Second, a large state possesses a larger population and thus can benefit from a wider division of labour in its bureaucracy. Hence larger states have no end of specialist agencies, departments and units that are each devoted to a particular area of government which serves to more effectively augment and consolidate the potency of government power. The US federal government, for example, employs approximately £4.1m people across an alphabet soup of abbreviated names and acronyms for hundreds of government departments and agencies. Smaller states will not have this luxury. Liechtenstein, for example, has an entire population of just over 37,000, a bare fraction of the federal government of the US, so many of its government employees must presumably carry out several core functions rather than individual, specialist occupations. Third, consolidation of smaller states into larger states reduces the competition between states. If a small state becomes too burdensome and oppressive in its rate of taxation and regulation then people can simply jump ship. Thus there will be a drain of productivity from the onerous state to the benefit of less domineering states. Indeed, rather than any so-called, internal “separation of powers” between the different organs of an individual state, it is in fact the competition with other states that provides the real check and balance to state power. We can therefore see that the real motivation for the consolidation of smaller states into larger states, the increasing number of trade agreements and treaties between states and, furthermore, the recent hullaballoo about corporate tax avoidance is to restrict choice amongst the taxed population. If such restriction is achieved, people will stay put in their home state and government can subject them to ever increasing restrictions, safe in the knowledge that nowhere else can offer anything better. The logical end – a vast, monolithic world state – would have absolutely no check whatsoever on its expanding powers, short of people’s abilities to escape into outer space. Moreover, sealing the border of a small state is markedly more difficult than sealing the border of a larger state. Smaller states are more reliant upon foreign trade for resources and the migration of intellectuals, entrepreneurs, businessmen and cultural or sporting icons, and so they have to permit a relatively porous border. A larger state, however, has much of these things home grown already and thus is able to invoke more impenetrable border restrictions, safe in the knowledge that it is not providing an overwhelming degree of disruption to its economy. And, of course, in a smaller state people are physically closer to the border so that even relatively impoverished people who wished to escape to a neighbouring state could brave the journey by foot in a few days. It would be much harder, however, for the same type of individual to escape the US to Mexico from, say, Kansas. Fourth, a larger state possesses a greater number of domestic industries compared to a smaller state. This creates both the incentive and the wherewithal to impose a greater number of protective trade restrictions and tariffs. If a smaller state, however, specialises in, say, two or three industries but does not have a steel industry it is clear that any protective tariff imposed on imported steel would be protecting absolutely nothing and everybody within the state is simply having to pay higher prices for steel. Moreover, as we noted, smaller states are more reliant upon foreign trade in the first place and any the effects of any restriction in that regard are likely to be greatly magnified compared to the same in a larger state. Fifth, all else being equal, a larger state comprises a greater proportion of the worldwide economy than a smaller state. Correspondingly, there will be a wider acceptance of its government-issued, paper currency. Larger states therefore have a much greater ability to inflate their currencies to support government spending and, moreover, export this inflation abroad. It is no secret that the status of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency, where everyone has a willingness to buy and hold dollars, has permitted a perpetual inflation of the dollar for decades, the eventual disastrous effects of which are only just beginning to be felt. A smaller state, however, whose currency has a smaller circle of acceptance and is barely used in international trade, is more likely to simply inflate itself into oblivion and has to enact price controls and capital controls much sooner than the larger state. Thus the chickens come home to roost much quicker in a smaller state, much like we are seeing in present day Argentina. And finally, in smaller states where the population is more homogenous in culture and outlook, it is much more difficult to set up a welfare state and to invoke the attitude that state welfare is permissible. In the first place, the lack of contrasting demographics provides little excuse for racial or cultural differences and, moreover, differences in the level of education to be used as a justification for alleged inequalities that can be somehow ameliorated by state welfare. In a larger state, however, it is possible to drill into the minds of welfare recipients a sense of entitlement resulting from their alleged misfortune while at the same time encouraging a sense of guilt and obligation in the minds of those who happen to be better off. Second, in a large state the disparate groups and populations, some of whom are wholly net tax payers and others wholly net tax receivers, are distant and unfamiliar to each other. The social security cheque of a poor, blue collar, unemployed man in urban Detroit, for example, may well be written by a middle class lawyer residing in Westchester. In other words, if you are a tax payer your money simply vanishes into a pot and you never get to see first-hand the nature and quality of the people who benefit from it, nor do the latter – probably residing on the other side of the continent with different coloured skin, a different language and different social and cultural practices which are entirely alien from yours – ever get to see you. Thus, with such an impersonal and faceless affair, there is little incentive for anyone to care about sponging off anyone else, nor is there much cause for tax payers to become outraged at who is sponging off of them. In a smaller state, however, the person writing your welfare cheque may quite easily be your neighbour, from whom there is nothing much to distinguish you in terms of background and education that should cause you to be any more “disadvantaged” than he is. Therefore, in a smaller state, it becomes much easier to determine which individuals are productive and generating wealth on the one hand, and which individuals are unproductive and acting as a leech upon everyone else on the other. Both the willingness to accept and to fund state welfare is therefore kept firmly in check in a smaller state.

To reiterate, none of this means to say that the theoretical debate between minarchism and anarchism does not matter. However, we can also see how the conduciveness of smaller states towards liberty and larger states towards tyranny goes some way towards eliminating the schism between minarchists and anarchists. The government of a smaller state is closer to the population not only geographically but also in terms of its values and cultural outlook. The result of this is that the crucial issue of the consent of the governed is at least partially, if never perfectly, resolved by a small state. Any government action is likely to be tailored to the specific needs and values of the smaller, local population as opposed to the one-size-fits-all solutions imposed by larger states. A degree of empathy and understanding between the governors and the governed is far more likely in a smaller state as opposed to when the government draws to its so-called “representatives” from distant and unfamiliar lands in a capital city that is hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. There is at least, therefore, a greater chance that the government is working for you and with you, even if you may disagree with some of its policies and have to obey certain edicts which you would prefer to disobey. Moreover, in a smaller state with a smaller population a single vote out of, say, a few hundred thousand people carries more weight than a single, drop-in-the-ocean vote in a population of tens of millions. And if the world as a whole consisted of thousands of small states and free cities with relatively small populations what would be created is a “patchwork quilt” of independent territories, each with their own social, political, cultural, economic, and religious idiosyncrasies, to the extent that everyone would be able to find somewhere that is broadly conducive to his own needs and values. Some states or cities, for example, could be relatively liberal with, for example, legalised drug use, and/or permissibility of homosexuality, whereas others could be conservative and/or religious and permitting the expression of only traditional cultural values. Moreover, although the industry of each state would necessarily have to specialise in what was possible in terms of the geography, climate and access to raw materials, each independent state would seek to pursue excellence in academia, art, culture, and sport on a much more local scale than is possible today in larger states. Therefore, states, and cities in particular, would once again become seats of great learning and culture as opposed to the havens of poverty and crime that many of them are today.

At the heart of all of this is the right to secession – the freedom of territories, cities, districts and the individual property owner, to break away from one state, join another, or even to go it alone entirely (indeed, the possibility of individual property owners seceding is one that Mises entertains in Liberalism, dismissing it only out of impracticality). In the first place it is, of course, the recognition of the right to secede that will shatter the behemoth state into smaller states. The prospects of a move towards this are not at all bad. Secessionist movements are beginning to show signs of success in various parts of the world, notably in Scotland where, in spite of a failed independence referendum last year, voters awarded 56 out of a possible 59 UK parliamentary seats to the Scottish Nationalist Party in May of this year. The US state of Texas passed a bill in June of this year that will see the opening of its own bullion depository in order to provide some kind of independence from the inflationary zest of the Federal Reserve. Indeed, given that the imperialism of the West is founded upon the hegemony of the dollar, seceding from this empire of paper money may be both the most symbolic and practically effective rejection of the large state. Second, however, with the right of secession comes the strongest chance of reconciliation between the theoretical schools of anarchism and minarchism. For if there is a right to secession, states are little more than a collection of property owners coming together voluntarily to provide for a common purpose in a way that suits those particular property owners. If these property owners could leave and take their property with them if they so desired the issue of consent – the preoccupation of anarchists – is overcome. However, in order to prevent secessionist fervour, the state – the group of property owners as a whole – cannot become overly burdensome or invasive towards particular property owners lest they leave. It would also be likely that too much socialisation and the implication of a welfare state would lead to weakening competitiveness with neighbouring states in which fewer areas were socialised. Thus, the scope of the state within a particular territory – the preoccupation of minarchists – is likewise resolved. Moreover, the threat of secession and the competition with other states would cause the government of a particular state to behave more like a business, seeking to attract “customers” to join its territory, so that even if certain services were socialised they would have to be run in a competitive manner because endless tax funding would simply never be a possibility as it is in a large state. There comes a point, therefore, where the distinction between the state as a compulsory, aggressive institution on the one hand, and a purely voluntary and privately endorsed entity on the other begins to dissolve. In short, whichever way you look at it the only way to achieve either the absence of a state desired by anarchists or a small state desired by minarchists is to oppose, resolutely and emphatically, the large, overarching state.

It is clear that this understanding can have important ramifications for the libertarian movement as a whole. While the theoretical debate between minarchism and anarchism will (and, in the opinion of this author) should remain, when it comes to decisive action towards achieving a free world we can see that pressing for the eradication of large states and their dissolution into smaller states may be a unifying way forward. Moreover, although libertarians should, at heart, remain fully radical and uncompromising in their detestation of the state, we can see that the less revolutionary stance proposed here is likely to be more acceptable to a public which still views at least some kind of state as a necessity. Libertarians would be able demonstrate to the public that the large, monolithic state is inimical to their prosperity while at the same time avoiding all of the “who will build the roads” and “who will catch the bad guys?” questions, discussion of which tends to alienate people from the libertarian cause. However, unlike the advocacy of other “half-way” measures to reduce state power (such as so-called  tax reform and school vouchers), which simply rearrange the deck chairs on the sinking ship of the state, pressing for the breakup of large states is a positive move towards eliminating the state entirely. There is, therefore, nothing half-hearted about this approach. Once we begin to put the world on the path to breaking up large states, not only will the worst excesses of state oppression be vanquished, but the achievement of restricting the geographical size of states may, in and of itself, also achieve the final libertarian end – either minimal “night watchman states or, a complete, de facto eradication of the state as an aggressive institution.

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National Defence and Just Wars

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However much people may disagree on the proper functions of the state and however much people may argue about how those functions should be deployed, it is almost universally acknowledged that “national defence” – the protection of the citizenry from invasion by foreign states – is seen, together with domestic security and protection from private criminals, to be not only the primary function of the state but also its very raison d’être. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how, without this function – given that it is joined at the hip with the state’s monopolistic use of force – there could possibly be any state whatsoever. Thus any opposition to government’s monopoly on security is expressed only by anarchists and those who wish to see an end to the state altogether.

In keeping with many libertarian commentators (for example, Robert Higgs in Crisis and Leviathan) we may acknowledge agreement here with the proposition that “war is the health of the state”, permitting a tremendous number of, at first, temporary, and then, enduringly permanent inroads into liberty that statists could only dream of during peacetime. The perpetual existence of a bogeyman, real or imagined, serves both to justify and to distract the average person from the state’s own increased privations upon the individual. However, what we wish to examine critically here is the validity of the assertion that “national defence”, so-called, is a proper function of the state as well as the question of whether any wars waged by states could be “just”.

First, the overwhelming concern of the individual is not “national defence” at all but, rather, defence of his own person and property – as well as the safety from harm of his friends and family. If defence of his person or property is his primary aim, however, surely he has more to fear from his own state rather than from any potential foreign invader? It is own state that taxes his income; it is his own state that has nationalised industries that he may use or work in; it is his own state that regulates what he may do, what he may choose to put into his own body or any other voluntary actions he may choose to do with other consenting adults. A change of forced rule from one state to another is not necessarily going to make any difference to any of this. One governing state may move out and another may move in with no noticeable change to the individual’s life whatsoever. Indeed, an invading state is normally interested in taking over the economic capacity of the lands that are eyed for conquest – it does not normally wish to reduce its prize to rubble and be left with a wasteland. To a large extent it will wish to leave infrastructure and existing property relations intact, particularly if it is to rely on the productivity of the conquered workforce. Indeed, the idea of the sanctity of the political border is relatively new in international relations and one that only really found concrete expression in the aftermath of World War I. Earlier, when wars were conducted by monarchs and royal families, territories used to change from the jurisdiction of one realm to another, simply switching ownership between monarchs and forming part of the victor’s private property. Indeed it was the wealth and power of the king, who owned his territory and his subjects, that determined the size of the realm. The day to day lives of the average folk were not likely to change a great deal. Today, if France and Britain were to have roughly the same kind of approach to private property ownership and towards civil liberties, what real difference would it make if the French government was to take over a chunk of Britain or the British to take over a piece of France? This fact betrays the real function of national defence, which is not to safeguard the person and property of the individual citizen at all. Rather, it is to protect the territorial integrity of the state and to defend the state and its rulers from being overthrown by other states and foreign crusaders. Just in the same way as one might erect a high fence to protect oneself from a bothersome neighbour, so too does the state use its monopolistic provision of “national defence” to protect itself. If this should be doubted and one is tempted to cling to the idea that government is there to protect us from evil foreigners, then why is it that the wealth, property and livelihoods of the citizenry are precisely what the state steamrollers over during wartime? Civil liberties are suspended, the news is censored, military slavery (politely known as “conscription”) is enforced, and all productive capacity is geared towards the war effort with food essentials heavily rationed and luxuries all but non-existent. It seems that protection of the people is the very last thing on the government’s mind when foreign threats loom large.

With the advent of democracy, where no one individual ruler “owns” any jurisdiction but, rather, it is supposedly run by a caretaker ruler for the good of “the people”, some kind of different criterion other than the extent of the property ownership of the king was needed to justify to the state’s prerogative to “national defence” and to mask its real purpose of protecting itself. Something had to be done to induce, in the population, the fear of foreign rule. Hence states began to invoke nationalistic sentiments in their populations and with it the sanctity of the political border. For without nationalistic fervour populations would have little willingness to defend the state from a foreign state. Bar nationalism, patriotism and strong cultural identities what reason would there be for a person to avoid being ruled by one government or another? Fortunately for the state all of this went hand in hand with the prevailing ideology of democracy and the economic policies that soon emerged – and, tragically, with horrifying results. First, democracy effectively nationalises the citizenry and makes everyone under the auspices of a particular government symbiotic with that government. Hence, when a foreign state invades it is not only “the” government that is under threat of takeover but “our” government. Second, as “democracy” has become synonymous with freedom, openness, and pluralism a natural fear of “other” forms of government – monarchs or dictators – is engrained. The terror of losing democracy to something that is, on the face of it, more despotic is used as a fervent justification for not only defensive but also offensive military action today. Thus, defence is imbued with ideological purpose. Third, state-dominated and collectivist economic policies naturally aggregate the people under the identity of the government. Under collectivism, the relevant economic unit is no longer the individual, choosing to fulfil his ends as best as he can with the available means, but, rather, “the nation”. All productive resources and all productive enterprises are geared by “the nation” towards “the nation’s” goals. Nations, not individual people and private entities, now compete with each other. Inputs, outputs and processes are heavily aggregated into relatively meaningless concepts such as “Aggregate Demand”, “Gross Domestic Product” and even the concepts of “exports” and “imports” are only really important if one views the world in political borders. Furthermore, the inefficiency and impoverishment caused by collectivism naturally creates a drive towards autarchy and xenophobic envy of the wealth and resources of neighbouring states. Under complete free trade, if Ruritania is predominantly agricultural and specialises in growing food, whereas Mauretania specialises in heavy industry and manufacturing, Ruritania would export food to Mauretania and the latter would use this to then fuel its industries and produce manufactured goods that are exported to Ruritania. Both countries benefit from the specialisation of the other and from trading their wares – indeed this is nothing more than division of labour by state rather than by individual. If, however, Mauretania’s government begins to interfere in its economy, its industries become less productive and less competitive; while the domestic market can be ring-fenced by protective tariffs, no such luxury can be imposed on the foreign market and Mauretania will find that demand for its exports in relation to other countries starts to dwindle. Thus, Ruritania will start exporting more food to other countries and less to Mauretania, leaving the latter with a food shortage relative to population. Hence comes the call from Mauretania’s government, recognising the resulting impoverishment, that Mauretania needs “self-sufficiency” in food. This was precisely the case of Germany before World War II, a heavy manufacturing nation that relied upon imported food, with food self-sufficiency being a major motivation for Hitler’s pursuit of lebensraum in the largely agrarian lands East of Germany’s borders. Indeed, Nazi Germany, a fascist-collectivist economy with potent – even doctrinal – nationalist fervour that resulted in one of the most horrific racially motivated exterminations in the whole of history is an instructive case that demonstrates the extremes of nationalism bred by collectivism, and this fact raises a pertinent question. If Nazi Germany was so horrible then why was it met with such mute opposition right up until the invasion of Poland (except for the bleating of Churchill during his so-called “wilderness years”)? Why was the Versailles Treaty so willingly shredded clause by clause until it was merely waste paper? Why so much willingness to accommodate and co-operate with such as awful regime? One reason surely has to be that under the post-World War I gold exchange standard, the New Deal and the pursuit of Keynesian macroeconomic policies to combat the Great Depression, everybody – not just Germany – was moving towards collectivist economic planning. Indeed, the New Deal and the associations and agencies it bred were modelled on those in Mussolini’s Italy. Policies such as the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act served to segregate each country as a closed economic unit and drive them towards autarchy. A related aspect of big government economies and welfare states is that they begin to view their populations as burdens as much as productive units – incessant consumers and eaters who put relentless pressure on “the nation’s” resources. Although today we can see this resulting in the concern of intellectuals with supposedly “excessive” population growth, in earlier days it helped produce the Eugenics movement, which had the aim of reducing those of lower “social and genetic worth” – i.e. the unproductive resource consumers –  and was largely discredited in the aftermath of World War II as a result of the Nazi policy of racial sterilisation. Perhaps even more visually embarrassing is that school children in the US recited the pledge of allegiance with the Bellamy salute – a variant of the Nazi salute. Any ideological weapons against Nazi Germany were, as a result, able to achieve only a blunt impact simply because they were not so sharply delineated. The uncomfortable truth is that Nazi Germany was fundamentally no different from any other state at the time – it’s just that Hitler took these fundamentals to their logical conclusion and the results were horrific. Indeed, “national defence” implies the preference for and superiority of one’s own race, culture and creed – for if these things do not matter to the individual citizen then so too does it not matter which particular foreigner takes over the government and starts delivering the mail. It is no small wonder why it leads to xenophobic hatred and is the breeder, rather than the solver, of conflicts.

Turning now to the economic case for national defence, this generally rests on the idea that, as the consumption of national defence is “non-rivalrous” and “non-excludable” that, left to the free market, it would be underprovided owing to a significant “free rider” problem. Without getting too much into why such concerns in and of themselves provide no justification for the state provision of a good or service, we can state more simply that it is only the precise methods of defence as chosen by the state that are non-rivalrous and non-excludable. An aircraft carrier serving A does not interfere with its services towards B, nor can its services be excluded from either one of those people. But there is no reason to suggest that aircraft carriers must be provided in order to maintain defence of one’s person and property, which is supposed to be the alleged purpose of national defence. Private defence operations may well produce methods of defence whose consumption is rivalrous and excludable – for example, more localised, specialised and heterogeneous defence methods specific to particular customers. The common fear concerning such methods of defence is that they will never be able to match the might and power of a foreign state – how can such scattered methods and apparent disorganisation provide any meaningful kind of protection? This fear is soon resolved by the realisation of several important points. First, weapons of enormous firepower – such as nuclear weapons – have only been developed by states because other states have done so. Nuclear weapons are not defensive weapons at all but, rather, weapons of mutually assured destruction. In particular, aggressors are usually not interested in reducing foreign territories to worthless rubble – they have their eyes on the economic resources that are available for exploitation within that territory. Indeed, a significant motivation for the US’s foreign aggression today is the control of resources in the Middle East (especially oil), camouflaged by an ideological veneer. If a stateless society was to abandon nuclear and other large, destructive weapons this would lessen the justification for foreign states spending their resources on them. This goes hand in hand with the second consideration which is that if, as we stated above, the state’s purpose in providing national defence is to protect its territorial integrity (and this is justified by the claim that it protects the persons and property of its citizens from invasion by foreign states), then if a particular foreign society is anarchical and has only scattered and allegedly ineffective private defence methods, what offensive threat does this pose to either the state or its citizens? Not only would the state have little internal impetus to maintain heavy defence spending but any attempt to cajole the citizenry to pay for it would be much harder as the state will lack the ability to construct a bogeyman. The so-called “War on Terror” and the threat of Islamic extremism does, of course, seem to negate this thesis as defence spending is ratcheted up against sub-state and not state actors. But there is a strong case to be argued that most of the threat from terrorism is as a result of the West’s own belligerence – in other words, terrorism is a defensive response rather than an offensive threat. Indeed, there will always be a handful of extremists, fundamentalists and radical nutcases in any society whether its statist, anarchist or whatever. What gives their ideas traction, however, and builds them up into a significant threat is that they become creditable in the eyes of other people – credit that the West seems all too willing to hand on a silver platter. In any case it is arguable that although the difficulty of eradicating terrorists permits the west to perpetuate a bogeyman, the “War on Terror” is becoming a harder sell as it seems as though any widespread, offensive capability of terrorists is limited. This leads to the third consideration which is that, while private defence may appear to be a hopeless offensive force, its effectives as a strictly defensive force comes not from its firepower which, collectively, may well fall short of that possessed by a state, but, rather, from the very fact that it is scattered and heterogenous. It is far easier for a foreign invader to take aim at a central command structure that possesses one train of thought, one or a few strategies, one chain of supply, and whose soldiers have all been trained in the same way and possess the same weapons. As the difficulty in combating guerrilla warfare can attest, it is far more difficult to overcome hundreds or thousands of localised strategies, different training, uncertain weaponry, and surprises round every corner. This effectiveness of private defence would be magnified if the entire economy is also decentralised. In modern states, entire communications and financial networks are centralised so that an invader only has to target the central hub in order to bring the entire country to its knees. How effective would it be, for example, for a foreign invader to knock out a country’s centralised banking system? Where all such services are provided privately, however, with no hierarchy of control springing from a common root, a single attack by the foreign invader is now multiplied into tens or even hundreds of separate attacks to take control of each and every individual, private network. The loss of a part of the banking industry to an aggressor would not necessarily cause the rest of the country to grind to a halt with the only option to yield to the invader’s might.

Just Wars

In spite of our negative conclusions concerning national defence, is it possible that there are any wars can be described as “just” and if what are the requirements for such justice?

It appears to be undisputed in the mainstream that World War II provides the hallmarks of a just war. Here there was a very belligerent and aggressive dictatorship that invaded foreign territories over which it had little (if any) claim, subjected their populations to extermination or slave labour and otherwise imposing upon them its odious method of government. Surely it was just for the allies to go to war against such a threat? Without having to examine the details of World War II specifically, we can see that the main problem with this line of thinking in the abstract is that it considers only states as the relevant players. The individuals within each state are practically ignored or are aggregated into collective wholes. The only relevant units in the analysis are whole countries and some countries are aggressive and nasty whereas others are peace-loving pacifists. If this was true and individual countries were individual people then World War II may come close to being a just war (although, as we shall see below, it would probably even fail if we made this assumption). However, all defensive actions of a state rely, for their funding, upon the taxation of individual citizens – the forced confiscation of their private property. This in and of itself is a rank injustice. What if the individual citizens do not want the money that they have earned legitimately and the government has not to pay for a war? They have had the very thing that national defence is supposed to protect – their private property – stolen from them. All state wars funded by taxation are, therefore, per se unjust, and this fact is true regardless of the nobility of the cause. Tax dollars can be spend on a multitude of good and wonderful things – schools, hospitals, roads, etc. – but this does not change the fact that the people forced to fund them would have preferred to have spent their money on something else. Hand in hand with this goes the possibility of conscription – the enslavement of the population into defending the country with their bodies as well as their wallets – and all of the other liberties that are suspended in war time, with the entire economy geared towards the war effort, as was the case in World War II. Moreover, what are we to make of the mass bombing of civilians, intentional or otherwise? The argument over who killed civilians first is irrelevant – the fact that it was perpetrated willingly by both sides indicates that they are both as bad as each other. And it was the allies who were responsible for what may be the worst of these atrocities – the incineration of tens of thousands of people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If a person robs me in the street am I entitled to fire a gun indiscriminately in his direction, killing tens of innocents going about their own business in order to apprehend the assailant? Am I entitled to state that my action was just as it stopped the evil thief and that everyone else who is now lying in pools of blood was just “collateral damage”? I would, quite, rightly be arrested and tried for murder. Such actions are no different in kind from civilian deaths during state warmongering. It also emphasises how little disregard states have for their populations when they are under threat – the persons and property of the individual people are not there to be protected but to be readily consumed or treated as cannon fodder, a wall of defence to protect the state.

Not only does all of this demonstrate the injustice of state perpetrated wars, but it highlights the fact that any consideration of history in terms of whole states, countries and nations will never be able to make an incisive ethical justification or criticism of past events. Although some may be worse than others, the basic truth is that all states are inherently unjust, resting upon a crumbling foundation of illegitimacy. Therefore it is impossible to categorise a war as just through such an approach. When we look at the players in World War II specifically it is difficult to see much of a distinct difference at all. The British were responsible for the imposition of the largest empire in human history. How was this much different from the German conquest of Eastern Europe? Germany’s pre-war attitude towards Britain and its empire was to regard the latter as a kindred, Aryan spirit and a model of ruthless empire-building to be followed and admired. Britain and the United States used concentration camps decades before the Nazis evolved them into death camps – and need we even mention the Russian gulags? Indeed the communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union, with its brutal political repression, does not have much to distinguish it from Nazi Germany – particularly if you were to be an unfortunate victim of one of these regimes. The Soviets had already completed much of their “Great Purge” of hundreds of thousands (at least) before German soldiers ever set foot on its soil. Further, such lack of ideological distinction between the state players in World War II reveals itself through the continuous switching of allegiances both before and after the war and the consequences of such switches. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 initially sealed Germany and the USSR as allies, secretly carving up Eastern Europe between them. Indeed, the entire trigger of World War II – the German invasion of Poland – was matched by Stalin’s own invasion of that country only a few weeks later. Germany then invaded Russia in June 1941 and Russia became allied to the British and, later, the US. After the War, of course, the former friends fell out and the Cold War endured for another four decades. And perhaps the most sorry tale is the fact that having been “rescued” from Nazi oppression the whole of Eastern Europe – at the mere of stroke of a pen – was consigned to Soviet oppression. For the populations of Eastern Europe how different from being ruled by the Nazis was being ruled by the Soviets? Indeed the attempted justification of World War II and the emphasis of the horrors of Nazi Germany has conveniently overshadowed the atrocities of the post-war communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe. Overall, however, it is hard to see how such outcomes could result if there were genuine, rigorous ideological differences between the players in World War II.

What then is the criteria for a just war? In the first place we must dispense with the notion of “war” itself which is a term that applies to states. In a libertarian world, in which there are only individuals and groups of individuals co-operating voluntarily, there would be no “wars” in the sense in which we understand them. Therefore, the justification for any warfare-type action is exactly the same as the justification for any violent action between individuals in a libertarian society. We can list the criteria quite simply as we did in a previous essay, The Ethics of Interventionism. To relate these to war specifically the equivalent war-faring terminology has been inserted:

  • No person (“country”) has the right to initiate violence (“offensive action” or “invasion”) against any other person (“country”) in any circumstance;
  • Where a person is the victim of aggression (“invasion”) he has the right to defend himself;
  • Where a person attempts to defend himself he has no right to initiate violence against innocents (“civilians”) during the act of doing so, including their enforced participation (“conscription”) and causing “collateral damage”;
  • Where a person attempts to defend himself other people have no right to initiate violence against him in order to stop him from doing so (“neutrality”);
  • A person has the right to solicit, contract with or otherwise co-operate with third parties (“allies”) in ensuring his defence;
  • Third parties (“allies”), likewise, have the right to provide their funds and resources towards defence, either through a negotiated contract (“treaty”) or voluntarily;
  • Third parties providing defence services have no right to initiate force against innocents during the act of doing so; this includes forcing others to contribute towards the same and causing “collateral damage”;
  • Where a third party provides defence services it not may be forcibly stopped (“blockaded”) from doing so by others;
  • Whether the injured party or a third party should or should not act to defend the former against an act of aggression, or whether such an act of defence is a “good” or “bad” thing by some other moral standard may be debated; however, the conclusion may not be enforced violently on any party that is not committing an act of aggression.

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Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Four – Wrongs

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The fourth part of our survey of libertarian law and legal systems will explore causative events of legal liability arising from wrongs – that is a breach of some obligation owed by one legal person to another without the necessity of a pre-existing relationship such as a contract.

There are two issues that demarcate the approach of a libertarian legal system towards wrongs as opposed to that of a contemporary legal system. First is the definition of a wrong and second is the standard of liability – that is, at which point the defendant becomes legally liable for a wrong.

Libertarian Definition of a “Wrong”

In contemporary legal systems, a wrong is some sort of act on the part of an individual that is viewed as being subject to legal sanction. Unfortunately, we have to start off with such a vague tautology as, looking at the variety of acts that are subject to legal regulation, this is about as precise as we can get. In many cases, of course, the wrong will be some form of harm caused by one individual to another which serves as the causative event to generate a legal response. “Harm” is very broadly defined and can include violent and physical inflictions such as murder and serious bodily injury, or damage and destruction to property, all the way to more ethereal harms that may include nothing more than speaking one’s mind such as “defamation” and causing “offence”. However, events currently classified as legal wrongs needn’t have a victim at all and the act may either be wholly unilateral or take place between consenting individuals. As an example of the former we can cite nearly all offences related to drug possession and dealing, and of the latter the criminalisation of certain sexual practices owing either to their nature or to the age of one of the participants. Basically, it is no exaggeration to admit that a wrong, legally defined, in our contemporary, statist legal systems means nothing more than some act that the ruling government or legislature doesn’t like and wishes to outlaw, to the extent that even quite innocuous behaviour may find itself being subjected not only to legal regulation but to criminal sanction.

As we outlined in part one, no legal liability is generated in a libertarian legal order unless the wrong, or the “harm”, consists of a physical invasion of the person or property of another – in other words, only those actions that violate the non-aggression principle are subject to legal regulation. Actions falling short of this violation are left untouched by the law and however unpleasant, unkind or distressing these may be one cannot use the force of law (i.e. legitimate physical force) to repel them1. A fortiori, there can be no legal wrong where the act involved has no victim, no other individual whose person or property has been invaded. Anything you do with your own person and property is no business of the law’s, however immoral or repugnant it might otherwise be.

There are certain wrongs that would appear to cause great harm (or have the potential to do so) but do not appear to be invading anyone else’s property. We can cite littering, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and shouting “fire” in a crowded space as examples. The victimless aspect of these acts, however, is caused by the fact that they take place on public property that is owned by no identifiable individual. In a libertarian world however, where all property is privately owned, the property owner would demand standards of conduct (i.e. through contract if you are, for example, paying to drive on a road) and breaches of these standards would then be invasions of the property that could be subject to legal sanction. Indeed, as we saw in part three, contract is a method of preventing and apportioning responsibility for aggression where there is a pre-existing relationship between the parties.

Once again we will not attempt to justify here the basis of self-ownership and private property upon which legal regulation in a libertarian world rests; rather we will merely assume it to be true and examine its consequences for a legal order.

Standard of Liability

The determination of the standard of liability – the extent to which a defendant would be held legally liable for his actions – is a difficult question. The simplest approach is to view all physical incursions into the person and property of another individual as existing on a scale – the least violent or aggressive actions on one end with the most – such as murder and rape – on the other. Defendants would simply be liable according to the level of harm that they caused. If you cause a bruise, you are liable for a bruise. If you kill someone you are liable for a death. However, such a simple classification overlooks the fact that the same outcome to the victim – death, for example – can result from a variety of incidents for which the defendant may be responsible. It may be anything from a deliberately and coldly calculated murder perpetrated by an evil and inhuman serial killer all the way down to an unfortunate accident that the defendant, while responsible, regrets bitterly and would never have dreamed of doing. Such accidents can result from not only the most innocuous of behaviour but also from an innocent moment of absent-mindedness, a weakness which is extant in all humans. It is not likely that libertarian legal systems will categorise these two defendants in the same way. The first person is clearly a murderer whereas to apply this label to the second person would appear absurd. To subject these two individuals to the same standard of liability would not only be unjust but would also cause the legal system to fail to distinguish between those individuals who are (or otherwise have been) a deliberately engineered threat to other individuals from those who are not.

One solution to this problem is to recognise the difference at the remedy stage, so that once liability is established then the remedy can vary appropriate to the individual act of aggression2. Clearly this would be logical when considering the degree of aggression caused – a person who caused a scratch wouldn’t be liable for the same degree of compensation (or whatever remedy) as a person who caused a death. Yet when the outcome to the victim is the same – death, for instance – but the methods or motives of the defendant have been different, such an approach causes the confused situation where you have different responses to the same causative event. We do not, in our contemporary legal systems, label those who cause accidents “murderers” and then simply apply a lesser standard of remedy. Rather the murderers and the manslaughterers incur liability on different grounds from those as those who caused accidents; different remedies then flow from the differing grounds of liability. In part one, we stated that the purpose of legal rules and norms is to broadcast, publically, the rights and obligations of each and every person so that conflicts can be avoided, or otherwise resolved. As “consumers” of the legal system, people will seek the services of jurisdictions where these demarcations are at their most clear so that they can carry on with their lives free from the aggression of others and free from aggressing against anyone else. In a similar vein people are likely to require the legal system to accurately and specifically categorise those who do or at one time did pose a deliberately engineered threat to the person and property of others and those who do not. A prospective employer, for instance, might wish to think twice before hiring you if you deliberately killed someone, whereas if you were the unfortunate cause of a road traffic accident in which a person died then he may have some interest in knowing this but it may not make much difference to your chances of employment. Labelling all of those who cause death “murderers” (or, if we were to go the other way, just “tortfeasors”) would banish the benefits to be gained from this categorisation. One objection to this might be that such a classification is very broad and there will be more detailed considerations to be accounted for within each category – within the category of murderers, for example, will be cold blooded and unrepentant serial killers as well as those who acted in moments of passion and bitterly regret what they did. Shouldn’t these possibilities be recognised too? The answer to this is that the law is qualified only to investigate what you have done and not what you might do; it is the purpose of the law to state that you deliberately murdered someone or that you caused an accident. The law cannot say that you might go on to commit murder or cause an accident in the future. There will be extra-legal standards that might determine if a convicted murderer is still a threat to the public. A prospective employer might, for example, require a psychological test or some sort of guarantee from a sponsor or insurer before they hire the convicted individual. However, based upon the approach of our contemporary legal systems and the likely requirements of those seeking justice, there is an arguable case that a libertarian legal system would still categorise the past acts of aggressors into crimes and torts, with the individuals classified as criminals and tortfeasors respectively, if anything because this is what people, the “consumers” of justice, are used to. We must, however, remind ourselves that these are only suggestions as to how a libertarian legal system might operate. Everything we are stating here is only a speculation or projection of how jurisdictions might respond to the considerations they face in a libertarian way. There is absolutely no reason to suggest that some other way would not be more appropriate or would not be more likely to emerge in a libertarian society. Anyhow, the upshot of all of this is that there is likely to be something more, some second aspect in addition to the simple results of the act of the defendant in order to determine the standard of that defendant’s liability.

This second element appears to be the mindset of the individual defendant – what was in his mind at the time that the act of aggression occurred. Did he intend to cause the act of aggression? Did he intend the act of aggression and ended up committing a larger act of aggression (murder in the course of a felony; or simply causing more damage than intended such as death during an assault); or was it simply an accident caused by negligence or absent-mindedness? The broad classification of wrongs by our contemporary legal systems into criminal liability (crimes) and civil liability (torts) more or less reflects this. Crimes normally require a standard of criminal intent (“mens rea”), a higher standard of proof (beyond a reasonable doubt) and what is viewed as a harsher remedy – usually imprisonment, but also, in some jurisdictions, capital or corporal punishment for those at the more serious end of the scale, and fines for those at the less serious. Civil wrongs, or torts, require no such intent, have a lower standard of proof (balance of probabilities) and the remedy is normally restricted to payment of compensation. By the far the most dominant area of civil liability in English law today is the tort of negligence, negligence being a mindset far below deliberate intent to cause aggression.

While this goes some way to resolving our problem the risk now incurred is that of deferring too much to the conduct of the defendant and not to the actual harm that was caused to the victim – that legal systems will only consider how the defendant behaved and hold him responsible accordingly. Certain, limited circumstances such as duress or automation (to the extent that the defendant could not choose his action) may serve to partially or completely absolve the defendant from any liability. That aside, however, while the specific content of the freely chosen behaviour of soundly sane adults should certainly determine the extent of liability, it should not absolve such a person from any liability whatsoever. While it might seem “unfair” to hold someone liable for an unintended, remote or unlikely consequence of his action, it is equally “unfair” to leave the victim, who had no involvement at all – either intentional or accidental – in bringing about the state of affairs, to bear his injury or loss uncompensated.

All of this we will now explore in more detail by proposing a likely approach of a libertarian legal system to the question of liability, an approach that we suggest will consist of three stages:

  • Can liability be established? In other words, did the defendant initiate an action that was the cause of the physical invasion of the person or property of another?
  • If so, what is the extent of the liability? In other words, what was the result of the invasion to the victim?
  • What is the nature of liability? I.e., did the defendant actively intend the aggressive behaviour or was it a mere accident?

Establishing Liability

It is submitted that the establishment of liability in a libertarian legal system is likely to rest squarely on the simple occurrence of aggression – whether an individual initiated an action that caused the physical interference with the person or property of another individual. Once the fact of aggression is established the question of law of whether the defendant is liable will always be in the affirmative. In other words, liability is strict and is restricted solely to the question of whose actions initiated an invasion, physically, of the person or property of another.

The courts will have to determine precisely which actions are and are not aggressive. As we mentioned in part one there are plenty of innocuous physical actions – light beams, radio waves, sound waves, even fumes and odours – which, under a certain level of intensity would not ordinarily be categorised as invasive or aggressive. It must be remembered that physical invasions only give rise to social rules so long as they create a conflict and conflicts exist only in the minds of the participating individuals. They are not determined by a scientific analysis of colliding matter3. People could invade and physically interfere with each other as much as they liked if they had no problem with it. It is only because such an interference prevents one of the parties from pursuing the fulfilment of his ends that rights exist come into being and their enforcement is sought. The test in more difficult or threshold cases, therefore, is likely to be whether the invasive action prevented the plaintiff from pursuing his ends with the property that was subject to the invasion. The court may need to interpret the actions of the victim in regard to the invasion to determine this. Did he, for example, have to interrupt his operations? Did he appeal to the defendant for a cessation of the aggressive act? The courts are likely develop rules in order to accomplish this. They may, say, for example, that after a certain period of time a person carrying out a physically invasive act without any complaint gains an easement title and is permitted to continue the act. Nevertheless the courts would have to look at all the facts in each case in order to determine whether the plaintiff’s action is genuine and it is not likely that any one particular factor will override all others in every single case.

Assuming that there is an actionable physical act of invasion the initiation of the act must be implemented by an intervening act of will of another legal person. Acts initiated solely by the laws of physics are not aggressive actions but merely the acts of nature. While in most cases the intervention of will is likely to be contemporaneous with the act of aggression – A punches B; C stabs D, and so on – there is no requirement for it to be so. I may accidentally leave the hand brake off on my car and half an hour later the car rolls into someone; I may build a house that many years later collapses and falls onto another person. The extent of the liability of the owner of invading property in these types of case is easily misunderstood. It is true that, in such cases, the owner of the invading good may be prima facie liable for its physical invasion of another person or the latter’s property. However, this fact owes itself to procedural or investigative purposes and nothing about ownership of an invading object per se attracts legal liability. Given that all ownership derives from acts of deliberate, physical homesteading which transform an object from one good into another (in other words, any dangerous condition of owned goods is most likely the result of the intervention of will of the owner), and that any current owner as a voluntary successor in title has nearly always assumed full responsibility for this condition, it makes sense to look to the owner of the invading object first in order to find the culprit. Moreover, this owner is the most likely person to have used it last and to have caused the invasion. If your knife is found at the scene of a murder then it is obvious that the police will look to you first – you, as the the knife’s owner, are the “prime suspect”, if you like. However, where there is clearly a further intervention of will by another individual then it is this latter individual who becomes liable and whoever owns the invading object is irrelevant. For example, A uses B’s knife to stab C. Neither A nor anything that belongs to him may ever actually touch C but it was the intervention of his will, beginning with his own body, that initiated the act of aggression, not that of B. B’s knife was merely the intermediate tool that was used to fulfil the act and simply because B owned the knife does not mean that he should be liable for the stabbing, barring some special circumstance4. In cases where someone stabs you with your own knife then the aggression has already began when the person assumes physical control of your knife. In short, your are liable for what you do, not for which you own, and you are only liable for what you own to the extent that you have done something with it.

This brings us to the matter of causation and the question of whether or not the willful initiation of an act by the defendant caused a physical invasion of the person or property of another. The concept of causation in the law is a thoroughly confused and problematic area in contemporary legal systems. Courts leap into examining causation from the point of view of the harm that resulted to the victim and whether some act, omission, or whatever of the defendant was the cause of the actual harm that resulted; the question of what it is about the defendant and what he actually did is ignored. Possessing no rationale as to what should generate legal liability, their factual analyses of cause in the first instance holds everything to be an operative cause of what followed. If we are talking about injuries from a car accident, then there are a variety of causes – the fact that the victim was driving on the road at the time; the building of the road in the first place; the weather; the light at the time of day. Factually speaking the creation of the Earth is a cause of all accidents. They therefore have to apply various other mechanisms, such as “proximate cause” or “remoteness of damage” in order to narrow to the “relevant” cause and the extent of the damage for which the defendant will be liable. Needless to say vague and malleable concepts such as what is “reasonable” to hold the defendant liable for wade into the fray, particularly when we consider situations where the loss or injury caused to the victim is grossly disproportionate to the initiating action. In other words, like a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane, the damage resulting is more widespread or remote than would normally be the case, sometimes by setting off a chain of events – poking someone and inducing a fatal heart attack; causing a spark that initiates a widespread fire; knocking over an object that falls into a wall, that collapses onto a crowd; and so on. Is it not unfair to hold someone liable for the full extent of the damage when that damage has been completely out of proportion to anything imaginable when you consider the original act? Legal concepts such as “remoteness of damage” serve, in some cases, to limit your liability for remote but quite serious damage that initiates with your action so that the victim is left uncompensated. This approach of contemporary legal systems towards causation, through a mixture of factual and policy applications, therefore results in everything and then, suddenly, nothing being blamed for the damage to the victim.

Our suggestion here is that the correct approach to the question of a causal connection between the willful act of the defendant and the physical invasion of the victim should be considered first, leaving the question of the effects of the physical invasion (the resulting harm) to be considered in the second stage. Overall, this makes it much clearer to connect the will of the defendant to the resulting harm.

Strictly speaking, when considering causation, we must recognise that there is no such thing as a watertight “factual” analysis of what caused what. Factual determinations of causation result only from controlled experiments where we have the ability to repeat the situation and hold all variables that are not under consideration constant. Hence, by altering the input of the variable being tested, we can reasonably conclude that any change in output is caused by the alteration of that input. Such a method is not possible when examining the facts of legal cases. The aggressive act has happened and the victim is left with the harm. We do not have the luxury of undoing it, recreating the situation and seeing what results if we vary a single factor of input. All enquiries of causation, therefore, require hypothetical projections of what would have resulted had the circumstances varied. We have already seen, however, that courts have to make objective legal determinations from untestable evidence when determining the intentions of the parties and whether behaviour was aggressive. Just as intention is a fundamental category of human action to which we can all relate, so too is the notion of cause, for all actions are made with the knowledge or belief that an action will cause a particular effect. Courts will have to use this understanding to make objective determinations as to which actions result in which events to the satisfaction of the required standard of proof.

The likely libertarian approach will make this relatively straightforward. What we are interested in is the willful intervention of the defendant. As all such interventions result in concrete, physical action emanating from the defendant’s body, the question is merely one of tracing the physical outcome from the defendant’s body to the person or property of the victim. All cases can be classified into broadly three categories:

  • The body of A physically invades the person or property of B – e.g. A hits B;
  • The body of A physically moves an object that invades the person or property of B – e.g. A shoots a gun at B; A uses a knife to stab B;
  • The body of A places an object in a position which later invades the person or property of B – e.g. A leaves the hand brake off on his car; the car rolls into the person or property of B5.

By starting from the position of the act of the defendant – the only act in which we are interested in in order to generate liability – and seeing if it arrives at the result of physical invasion of the victim then the enquiry of causation is greatly simplified. In categories one and two this will be straightforward as the motion of the defendant’s body directly and contemporaneously results in physical invasion of the victim. The third category, however, is more problematic as it may require the further intervention of acts of nature in order to complete the physical invasion. Gravity may largely determine where my car goes if I leave its hand brake off; the flow of the river will carry my boat downstream if its moorings snap; a chemical reaction may cause an object created by me to explode under the right circumstances. At the very least the courts are unlikely to hold that such interventions of the laws of physics have any bearing upon the defendant’s liability where they are part of the natural and expected course of events. A car left with the hand brake off can be expected to roll down hill; a boat with a snapped mooring can be expected to be carried downstream. Where the intervention of nature is extreme or unexpected – e.g., a lightning strike blows up of part of a house and the debris strikes a passer by – the courts may or may not hold the owner of the house liable. If they do, however, there is always the likelihood that the defendant’s insurer will cover the cost of compensation to the victim, something we shall explore in more detail later. Completely new acts of intervention by a third party may result in either the defendant being absolved from liability completely – i.e. his act did not result in the physical invasion of the victim – or he may have to share liability with the third party, depending upon the circumstances. For example, a third party picking up my knife and using it to stab someone would not cause me to incur liability; however, if my boat snapped from its moorings and then a third party pushed it into the path of another boat the courts may find both parties liable for the aggressive act to the owner of the latter boat.

As we indicated, once the fact of aggression is established then liability is applied strictly. The effect of this approach is to hold an individual person wholly responsible for the voluntary actions of his body and those of his property. In other words, in each and every person’s action the risk that the said action may result in the invasion or aggression of another is borne by the initiator of the action. It is therefore the responsibility for each and every individual to ensure that his actions do not result in physical invasion. In most cases this will be straightforward to accomplish. We generally have a high degree of control over whether our actions will in fact invade another individual. If I walk down the street it is not difficult to avoid bumping into other people; if I drive my car I don’t have to break into a sweat to avoid ramming it into other cars. We can usually go about our daily lives without even having to consciously avoid physical invasion of other people. As each person possesses this degree of control we know from economics that placing the responsibility of aggression on its initiator will result in lower acts of aggression as people seek to avoid its cost. There will simply be fewer acts of aggression with which the courts have to deal. The difficult question, however, arises from situations where aggression results from actions which are innocuous, accidental, arise from innocent and typical moments of absent-mindedness, or simply, from the point of view of the initiator, amount to little more than going about his daily life; for example, knocking over your cup of coffee and scalding someone; or a moment of distraction that causes you to run over a pedestrian; kicking a football that accidentally goes astray. The precise context of such occurrences may also matter. In emergencies we are much more likely to rush and to avoid taking care of our actions because there is a pressing need at stake. In all of these cases does it not seem unfair to hold the defendant liable for something that was initiated out of a moment of human weakness, common to us all, and/or out of simple common behaviour which, but for the invasion of the victim’s property, would have been allowable? And is it not unfair to hold someone liable for his actions when he is, with all good intention, responding to a pressing need such as in an emergency?

Contemporary legal systems have developed mechanisms and doctrines to attempt to tackle this problem. In the English tort of negligence, for example, one of these is the so-called “duty of care” which attempts to narrow the field of actions where negligence gives rise to liability. In other words, there will be some situations in which you can be as negligent as you want yet you will not be held liable as you are said to owe no “duty of care”. Indeed even negligence itself is a vague and arbitrary concept, permitting the courts to consider practically every aspect of the situation while possessing no rationale as to which should be given weight in order to determine whether the defendant was, in fact, negligent. The problem with all of this is that however innocent or well-intentioned your actions, the victim – the one person who definitely did not have any input at all into the action – is still left standing with the loss. With the acquittal of the defendant forgotten is the man with the broken leg, the widow with a dead husband, or the child that is paralysed. To absolve the defendant does not make these losses disappear; rather it simply shifts them from the defendant to the plaintiff. In spite (or perhaps because) of some of the complex formulae and procedures that have developed in some of the case law, legal mechanisms such as the duty of care appear to be based little more on questions of whether the defendant behaved “reasonably” in his conduct or whether it is “reasonable” for him to be held liable for the full extent of the damage caused by his initial act. They therefore amount to little more than political vehicles as to who should bear the risk of loss from invasive actions that you initiate. The more restricted the liability upon you, the aggressor, the more the burden of risk shifts to the victim (or potential victims). Rather than watching whether our own actions will initiate aggression we will forever be on the lookout to protect ourselves from everyone else’s.

While it might seem unfair to hold a defendant liable for his “reasonable” behaviour, the fact of the matter is that we all bear the risk of initiating aggression through our innocuous actions or “reasonable” actions. Life is inherently risky and the risk of invading the person and property of others is a risk inherent in the existence of society, just as we bear the risk of falling ill or having our house burned down by fire. The libertarian does not expect legal methods – violence and force – to solve problems such as hunger, illness etc. and nor should it be used to mitigate risk. Rather we believe in the free market to do these things. Where it is no longer possible to mitigate risk personally the insurance industry steps in to pool risk across many individuals. Thus, in the unlikely and unfortunate event that you cause an aggressive action, you may be protected from having to compensate the victim by your insurance provider. But a libertarian legal system will not absolve you from the fact of liability simply based upon the reasonableness or normalcy of your conduct. This is highlighted more starkly in the situation where a person is put in the position of having to damage at least some property. For example, let’s say a car is hurtling towards you and you have to deflect it into either property A or property B. Property A costs £500 to repair, property B £300. If you own both properties then your “reasonable” behaviour would be to deflect the car into the property which was cheapest for you to repair – property B. You would then have to fork out for the repairs. If, however, property B was owned by someone else then your choice is now between damaging your own property A at a cost of £500 or damaging property B and having to provide compensation to the owner at the cost of £300. Again, your “reasonable” behaviour would be to save property A and damage property B. In both situations your behaviour is reasonable but it would be absurd to suggest that in the second scenario you should not have to pay simply because the damaged property is owned by someone else.

Finally, it should be clear that where the physical invasion is caused solely by the laws of physics then the invasion should be regarded as an act of nature and the victim will have to bear the full cost, or otherwise make insurance provisions in order to do so.

The Extent of Liability

Once the fact of physical aggression or invasion is established, the second question concerns the extent of the liability incurred. In other words, what harm or loss to the victim did the act of aggression cause? The defendant is to be held fully liable for the loss that his aggression caused. Once more the effect of this is to hold an individual person wholly responsible for not only the voluntary actions of his body and those of his property but also for their effects. In other words, just as you bear the risk of invading others through your actions, so too do you bear the risk of what results from that invasion. Again, just as the fact of aggression itself is, for the most, part, easily controllable, so too will any harm that is caused likely to be in proportion to the extent of the action. If I bump into someone accidentally he may come away with a slight bruise or nothing at all; if, on the other hand, I punch him in the face he is likely to end up with a broken jaw; and if I stab him twelve times he is likely to die. Normally, therefore, each individual can control not only his actions in order to prevent aggression in the first place but also the precise level of harm that his actions will cause. As we mentioned earlier, problems arise when your actions – invasive as they may be – produce outcomes that appear disproportionately severe compared to the action itself. This includes situations where the victim has an unusual or peculiar sensitivity to invasive actions – such as a weak heart that could be arrested by the most innocuous of aggressive acts. Is it not unfair to hold the defendant liable for such wild and unforeseeable harm that result from his act?

Yet precisely the same arguments that apply to question of liability in the first place apply also to its extent. However remote, unlikely or unforeseeable the results of your actions simply dismissing them does not make the losses disappear but merely shifts their burden to the victim, the one person who had no involvement. While it is within the economic interests of potential victims to protect themselves from the effects of aggression – particularly if they possess an unusual sensitivity – there can be no legal compulsion for them to do so and defendants should take their victims as they find them, warts and all6. Once again, therefore, every single person bears the risk of causing widespread damage even though his actions may demonstrate no or a miniscule degree of fault in relation to that damage. Where it is no longer possible for the defendant to mitigate the risk of causing widespread damage through controlling his personal conduct then he can contract with an insurance provider to spread this risk across many potential tortfeasors – just as he can so contract to spread the risk of aggressive behaviour in the first place.

Once again the question of causation arises and it is here that we consider the second part of this area. Having established that the act of the defendant caused a physical invasion to the victim’s person or property we then have to establish whether the invasive act caused the loss or damage to the victim. In most cases this will be extremely clear as the invasive act will be intimately and undeniably bound with the loss or damage in the same physical space. A shoots B and B bleeds to death; A’s car rams into B’s house and the house collapses, etc. In certain questionable cases it may be necessary for the courts to develop standards – for example, expert medical testimony from three independent sources – that will be sufficient in order to determine cause. The difficult area is likely to be in situations where there are multiple, independent causes sufficient to result in the damage and it is otherwise impossible to tell precisely which was the actual cause. For example, two shooters independently fire their guns at an individual and two bullet’s lodge in the victim’s body and he dies. Either bullet was sufficient to cause the death of the victim but it is not know which one. In the Fairchild case7 five employers of the victim exposed him to asbestos at various stages of his career; only one asbestos fibre was required to cause the illness that subsequently resulted in the victim’s death but it was impossible to determine precisely which fibre he inhaled was the cause. What should the courts do in these cases? It is likely that the courts will hold all of the sufficient causes proportionately liable, the exact proportions to be determined by the individual cases (such was the outcome in Fairchild). All tortfeasors will therefore share the burden of compensation at the remedy stage. Where one of the sufficient causes was an act of nature then the total compensation recoverable by the victim will be reduced accordingly. One limitation for the victim, however, is that liability between the defendants should be several and not joint unless the independent causes were actively co-operating. In the Fairchild cases, therefore, if one of the defendants was no longer alive or recovery was otherwise unavailable then the plaintiff could not recover that defendant’s portion from the other defendants. Victims always bear the risk that their tortfeasor may no longer be able to furnish a remedy for the harm done; this applies in cases of multiple independent as well as single tortfeasors. The contrary would hold that, if four of the Fairchild defendants were no longer alive yet one was then the victim would be able to burden that defendant with the entirety of the loss in spite of the fact that causation of the harm by that single defendant has not been established to the relevant standard of proof. This was the outcome of Barker v Corus8, which was, unfortunately, reversed by legislation, at least to the extent that it applies to asbestos. What we have suggested here is an equitable compromise between three factors:

  • Physical aggression being sufficient to generate liability;
  • The harm done to the plaintiff through no fault of his own;
  • The lack of a strict, causal relationship to the satisfaction of the required standard of proof between those two factors.

If, however, two tortfeasors are actively co-operating then it is likely that the courts will find their liability to be joint and each is liable for the whole. The contrary would permit the deliberate scattering of liability. For example, one could hire tens of shooters to kill a person at the same time (increasing the likelihood of death) yet burdening the plaintiff with the cost of apprehending and trying all of them in order to gain his full remedy.

Nature of Liablity

Having established the fact of liability and its extent, the third consideration for the court will be to determine the nature of the liability. This centres entirely on the intention of the defendant to commit the act of aggression and the classification of that act into a crime or a tort. It is likely that this categorisation will be extremely broad and will not have to enter detailed examinations of various modes of mind. Rather the sole enquiry is whether the act of aggression was deliberate and intended or was accidental. If it was deliberate then the act was criminal; if it was accidental then the act is tortious or the equivalent of “civil” liability in our contemporary legal systems.

Intention does not necessarily require the motive of causing the specific act of aggression. One might wish to blow up a plane in order to fake an insurance claim. The fact that killing everyone on board was not the purpose of your act would not absolve you from liability for murder as those deaths were the natural consequence of causing the explosion. At the opposite end of the scale some extreme degrees of recklessness may be sufficient to establish criminal intent even though the aggressive act was not sought deliberately by the defendant.

A further likely consideration is whether the actual resulting harm (in addition to the aggression in the first place) was also intended by the defendant. A shoots B and B dies; C pokes D and D dies. Both A and C intended an act of aggression and are both criminally liable but it would be extreme to suggest that C – who probably intended no or little harm at all – should be classified as a murderer just like A. It is likely, therefore, that the court will recognise gradations of liability according to intention of outcome, such as degrees of murder.

The upshot of all of this is that, at the remedial stage, a tortfeasor is likely to have to furnish compensation only and can then go about his life unmolested. A criminal, however, having been identified as a deliberate threat to the person or property of others, is likely to face further sanction, punishment, or rehabilitation before his reintegration into the community. Such considerations are beyond the scope of what we can examine here.

By retaining this classification we do not, in any way, mean to state that “crimes” are offences against the public or against the state, and at no point does the state replace the victim in the prosecutorial process. We are merely suggesting that those who seek justice are likely to demand this distinction between wilful criminal conduct on the one hand and accidental behaviour on the other.

Self-Defence

Under libertarian theory, self-defence is the physical response to an invasive act in order to render that invasive act inert; the physical nature of the response – i.e. violence – is therefore legitimised. How are libertarian legal systems likely to handle this concept?

Let us say that A is the individual invoking self-defence and B is the person alleged to be carrying out an act of aggression against A. In order for self-defence to be validated, there must be an actual, objectively identified initiation of an act of aggression perpetrated by B. The mere possibility or even probability of an act of aggression does not suffice. A’s misinterpretation of B’s behaviour also would not suffice. If B raises his arm to brush his hair and it was objectively clear that this was his intention but A, expecting an imminent strike, shoots B then however reasonable or in good faith A’s misinterpretation of B’s behaviour he would not be allowed to invoke self-defence and A would be held fully liable as an aggressor. If this should be doubted, then consider the position of B; if he is raising his hand to comb his hair and this is the objectively valid interpretation of his action but A goes and shoots him would he (B) be entitled to defend himself from this act and shoot A back? If the answer is yes then A is the aggressor and not the defender. If, on the other hand, B pulled back his fist at A in order to punch him and A shoots him to stop him then B would be the aggressor and A the defender.

The act of aggression must have been initiated – in other words, it must be in the process of occurring. While the physical intervention does not yet have to have occurred, its occurrence must be the imminent result of that which has already occurred. I raise my gun at you ready to shoot would warrant an intervention of self-defence, even though I have not yet shot. In some cases, threatening words may suffice if they can be interpreted objectively as a statement if imminent intent. Fully anticipatory acts of “defence” – i.e. shooting someone before he has a chance to initiate an act of aggression against you – are, however, not warranted. While someone may be very concerned at the presence of a peculiar or sinister individual the lawful response to this is to prepare oneself for an act of defence in the event that an act of aggression is, in fact, initiated. This could include installing extra security devices on one’s property or carrying a personal firearm.

What is the permissible extent of the defensive act? Once again, in our contemporary legal systems, “reasonableness” rules the roost with “reasonable force” being the seemingly operative phrase. However, at least in situations where the aggression is sudden and surprising victims do not have the time to judge the extent of the aggressive act and precisely which response is proportionate. Indeed, any such act – a robbery, a car hurtling towards you, a raised fist – whether deliberate or accidental may either result in the death of the victim or escalate to do so. It is submitted, therefore, that the correct approach is likely to be that any act that the victim deems necessary to bring the invasive act to a close will be a permissible act of self-defence. This may involve killing the invading person or destroying the invading object. What is not permitted is for the act of defence to harm innocent bystanders or for it to continue once the aggressive act has been rendered inert. So someone could not, for example, fire indiscriminately into a crowd in order to stop a robber from running away, nor could one, having shot an intruder, proceed to take an axe and hack him to pieces. These would all be fresh acts of aggression and would themselves be liable to legal sanction.


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Minor revisions and clarifications were made to this essay on January 16th 2018.


1This does not mean to say, of course, that extra­-legal methods cannot be used to discourage “harmful” actions that fall short of a physical invasion.

2This appears to be Rothbard’s approach – see Murray N Rothbard, Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution, Cato Journal 2, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 55-99, reprinted in Economic Controversies, pp. 367-418, at pp. 409-12; also, The Ethics of Liberty, p. 144.

3Indeed, one of the criticisms of the non-aggression principle – that it would outlaw practically all behaviour that results in innocuous invasions – is based upon this misunderstanding.

4Even if this wasn’t the case though, and if we could, theoretically, hold B liable so that C should sue B and B should sue A we must bear in mind that not only is the purpose of the justice system to enforce rights and obligations with clarity but that also the “production” of justice is itself a costly affair that consumes resources. It is likely therefore that a libertarian system will always take the shortest route and permit C to sue A directly, with B dropping out of the picture (unless B wishes to sue A for the theft of the knife). The same considerations would occur with accidents that involve a chain of property ownership – A bumps into B which causes B to bump into C which causes C to bump into D. D is likely to be able to sue A directly.

5cf. Richard A Epstein, A Theory of Strict Liability, Journal of Legal Studies 2 (January 1973)151-204.

6Some cases have been decided by whether the cost of preventing the invasion is higher for the defendant or for the victim, with the person bearing the lowest expense liable. For example, does a person have an obligation to “fence-in” his cattle to prevent it from wandering onto the property of another or does the latter have the obligation to fence them out? Where the pasturing of livestock was carried out intensively it was cheaper for the owner to fence in than it was for the third party to fence out and the owner was held to be liable. However, where it was extensive then it was less expensive for the third party to fence the animals out and he was held liable for the resulting loss caused by the invasion of the animals. Apart from requiring invalid interpersonal utility comparisons, this approach overlooks the fact that parties arrange their affairs with regards to all of the economic circumstances that they face, including the possibility of having to compensate a victim or litigate a case. For example, a farmer will fence in his cattle if the cost of doing so is less than that of providing compensation to a violated third party; a third party will fence out if the cost of doing so is less than that of litigating a case of invasion. Factored into this will be the likelihood of invasion in the first place and the non-monetary costs – time, for example – that would be involved. It is not the business of libertarian courts to either assess or correct the economic choices of the parties before them – rather they should apply the law according to libertarian principles so that these choices can be made with certainty in the first place. It is true, however, that the customary and conventional context may cause courts to preclude unusual sensitivities from permitting the condemnation of otherwise innocuous or innocent behaviour as aggressive.

7Fairchild v Glenhaven Funeral Services Ltd. [2002] UKHL 22

8[2006] UKHL 20

Climate Change and Social Rules

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Human-induced climate change (formerly known as “global warming”) is, currently, a mainstream political topic that free market advocates frequently wade into, and rightfully so. When government threatens to use this excuse to expand its level of control both nationally and internationally, lovers of liberty cannot help but be drawn into defending their cause against this onslaught.

Nevertheless it is submitted that too much effort is directed at tackling the issue of whether human-induced climate change (through carbon dioxide emissions or whatever) is happening, and that there are insufficient attempts at clarifying precisely what, if anything, should be done under the assumption that it is happening. While it is interesting to debate the truth of the science and the motivation of the parties involved (especially the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)), we must submit that it is not within our capacity as political philosophers to tackle the conclusions of the natural scientists (although when it comes to the climate there is an arguable epistemological case against drawing too many incisive conclusions from such research, plus against the assumption that, if climate change is happening, it would necessarily lead to “catastrophic” or even unfavourable results, or that such results could not be adapted to). Rather, the more interesting question for libertarians is the extent to which (if any) social rules and political philosophy apply to a phenomenon such as climate change.

Let us start by outlining a few key assumptions:

  • Climate change is happening;
  • It is induced by purposeful human activity and, specifically, by net carbon dioxide emissions;
  • The phenomenon cannot be attributed to any identifiable individual or group of individuals; rather it is only the action of all humans in concert, although specific areas of the Earth and particular industries may exhibit greater contributions owing to the level of their industrialisation;
  • The phenomenon neither perceptibly nor directly harms any individual or property at any particular moment in time. The effects are gradual and cumulative, causing changes that might only be measurable (let alone noticeable) after a long period of time.

It is these last two facts that are often cited as the necessity for government intervention – that as no one individual suffers any sudden, appreciable cost from climate change that can be traced back to the action of another identifiable human being, it is alleged that neither the free market pricing, profit and loss system, nor traditional tort law, can control the phenomenon. Rather, climate change is one vast negative externality of human behaviour, in which we are slowly but surely sowing the seeds of our own doom with each step of economic and industrial progress. This allegation we will come to later. First of all it is important for us to understand precisely in whom the “right” to prevent climate change from happening is vested.

Rights and Obligations

The Earth and the matter it contains – the trees, the sky, the land, the oceans, the birds, the bees and so on – are all unconscious entities that have no desires, no feelings, no choices and no rational actions to bring about preferred ends. “Mother Nature” and the providence she brings may be an apt and vivid representation of the world and of all of its natural gifts, but it must be realised that she is only a metaphor. There is no conscious entity that can possess any “right” to be preserved, nor owed the obligation to be preserved. Any talk, therefore, of climate change being a “betrayal” of the planet and continued acts of industrialisation and pollution as somehow being “treasonous” are complete nonsense. Ascribing rights to the Earth is as ridiculous as ascribing it obligations – a pool of water, for instance, is not regarded as a murderer when someone drowns in it. Rather, these elements – rights and obligations – only arise between morally responsible beings, i.e. those beings that are endowed with moral choice. Any rights and obligations that arise as a result of climate change are, therefore, strictly between humans and not between humans and the planet. Even if the Earth did have “rights” in any meaningful sense, they would still have to be executed and enforced by human beings against other human beings.

For the same reason neither do “future generations” possess any right to enforce climate stability. Just as much as unconscious and lifeless matter, unborn or hypothetical persons cannot possess rights and responsibilities. One may judge it a very good thing to bequeath to our descendants a legacy of the world in a particular state but, again, this would be a judgment of existing humans and not of their unborn children and grandchildren. The right claimed is, once more, of those currently living people who wish to see the world continue in a certain state for their heirs.

Related to this aspect is the view that the Earth has some kind of inherent beauty or a universal and almost omnipotent splendour that transcends the existence of human beings. Far from co-existing with the Earth in a symbiotic relationship, humans are seen as a cancerous scourge that is destroying the planet’s innate and immovable qualities, a scourge that may (in some more extreme versions of this view) permissibly be killed in order to protect and defend the intrinsic magnificence of nature. All of this is nonsense. The Earth has been through many different modes of being throughout its approximately six billion years of existence. Whether it is better existing as a green and lush land of forestry, as a dead and lifeless cinder orbiting the sun, or covered in sea, ice, volcanoes, or whatever else, is a judgment that is made by humans. Absent any human there is no state in which the Earth can be that could be said to better or worse, beautiful or ugly, harsh or gentle, and so on. Even relatively more objective criteria such as whether it is “warm” or “cold” are judged against the temperature that is most comfortable for human existence. Climate change is not “harming” or “destroying” the planet. It is only changing it from one form into another. It requires a thinking, desiring and choosing human being to determine whether the form the Earth is in (or that to which it is being changed) is preferable. If this particular epoch of the Earth’s existence is especially and inherently satisfying, appealing, and worthy of preservation then this is a human judgment that is not measurable by any universal criteria. If humans are inducing climate change the effect of this is solely upon the preferences of other humans – and not upon the non-existent soul of the Earth. The question of climate change is therefore an interpersonal human matter, and not one that is between humans and the planet.

There is, therefore, no special body of rights and obligations that emerges solely because of climate change, and all discussion of the morally permissible means to deal with climate change must engage with the question of the rights and obligations of existing humans to prevent it. If, then, we take this approach, it appears at first blush that the problem of climate change may reduce to being simply one of the aggression of one person (or set of persons) against another. If the actions of person A on his property A1 causes damage on property B1 that is owned by person B then person A is liable. Can our discussion of how this harm can be prevented simply be the stock one of whether government should wade in and do so or whether the free market should? Unfortunately this approach is not likely to be adequate for the very reason we mentioned earlier. There is no one identifiable victim of aggression and there is no one identifiable perpetrator. It is the action of all humans in concert that is causing these changes to the climate that have allegedly deleterious consequences upon all human beings. Surely only the strong hand of the government is sufficient to prevent its disastrous results? A response to this, however, requires not capitulation and surrender, but rather, a deeper investigation by political philosophers (and libertarians in particular) into the nature of the problem of climate change in order to see whether the circumstances justify any interpersonal regulation at all. To this we shall now turn.

Humans and Nature

A human, in all of his endeavours, faces two sources of difficulty in the world – the state of nature on the one hand and the actions of his fellow humans on the other. Nature, that is, the world in which a human finds the environment around him, can be a harsh benefactor. When humans first trod on the virgin soil of the Earth, the availability of materials, water, and foodstuffs may have been plentiful and abundant in a raw and unbridled state. However, harnessing those resources and transforming them into arrays that would allow them to meet a wide range of ends would take centuries of toil and capital accumulation, something that did not significantly get off the ground until the beginning of the latest two centuries’ of human existence. Furthermore, natural phenomena such as the variability of the weather and the cycle of the seasons serve only to make this task more difficult. Nevertheless, whatever nature throws at man is something that, in the first instance, has to be taken as a given. Whatever configuration of elements nature provides to humans, whether it is good or bad, gentle or harsh, safe or dangerous, plentiful or mean, has to be dealt with as it is found. Only subsequent human action, in relation to what nature has provided, can bring about a change in the situation. Nature does not possess any choice in how it presents itself; it is simply under the orders of the laws of physics to do that which results. One could not, for example, “reason” with the ground to start growing crops, or shout at the clouds to provoke a rainfall. All of the problems that nature throws at humans, therefore, can only be overcome by taking nature as a given, by understanding its reality and by then learning to act with it symbiotically. We manufacture a hammer head out of metal and not out of sponge because metal is hard and will force a nail into a wall. We make a bucket without holes because otherwise water would leak out to the ground. We make knives sharp because a blunt object would not exert enough pressure to slice through meat or bread. We fertilise the soil in the winter, sow the seeds in the spring, tend to the ripening of the crops in the summer, and finally harvest in the autumn. In all of these cases we are acting in accordance with what nature has given us in order to meet our ends. It is true, of course, that as we progress we can overcome some of these problems with greater ability. Artificial heating and sunlight can, to a degree, overcome the problem of restricting crop production to the seasonal cycle. But still, this is only possible because we have learnt about the nature of energy and electricity, and we have still had to harness these in a way that is compatible with their nature. We do not click our fingers to make electricity appear; rather we have to generate it, lay cables to transport it to a heating or lighting outlet, and back again to complete the circuit. So even when we get to very advanced stages of production, capital accumulation and technological insight, we are always acting in accordance with what nature gives us. We cannot change this fact of existence. Our only option is to understand more incisively how we can use whatever nature provides.

Humans, on the other hand, are very different. Humans do not merely exist in the universe as dead, unconscious matter whose actions are only the result of physical laws or chemical reactions. Rather they possess choice, choice that is, in turn, motivated by desire and leads to concrete actions. As a result these choices can be debated, challenged, reasoned with, and altered at will. The substance of a human’s action, therefore, in contrast with the substance of the actions of unconscious matter, do not have to be taken as a given. Indeed they cannot be taken as a given because there simply is nothing to be taken as it is – every action is the result of a new choice and a new decision, not merely a repetition of what has happened before. Even the decision to repeat a previous action – like driving down the same road to work every morning – is a new decision to carry on doing something that was done before. Although it may be estimated with a varying degrees of probability, there is nothing that is ultimately and categorically predictable about the substance of a human’s action to the total exclusion of an alternative, and any hypothesis concerning what a particular human will do at a particular time and place is a personal judgment based on empathetic understanding.

Both of these factors – nature on the one hand, and fellow humans on the other – are sources of the overriding and predominant concern of human existence – scarcity and the conflicts that arise from scarcity. Nature does not produce enough resources for a human to meet all of his needs without the intervention of labour – choices must be made to resolve conflicts between ends that are held dear. Other humans compound this by desiring the use of resources that could meet your ends. The resolution of conflicts from each source of scarcity requires a bifurcated approach. Conflicts arising from nature can be resolved only by gaining a greater understanding of that nature in order to use what is has given to the furthest possible extent. Conflicts arising between humans, however, are resolved by social rules that derive from morality and how these rules deem it appropriate for a human to act in order to avoid conflict with another. The strongest of these rules are laws, those which may be enforced violently, as opposed to mere custom, manners, traditions and so on. It is with these strong rules to which the standard libertarian approach is non-aggression, self-ownership and private property. It is individual humans who have values, choices and desires; it is individuals who conflict over the ends to which the scarce means available must be devoted. It is therefore individuals who determine when there is a clash of values that needs to be resolved. It is the clash of individual wills that marks the realm of political philosophy separate from the realm of nature.

How, therefore, does human-induced climate change fit into this framework? Is it a conflict that arises out of inter-personal human interaction, in which case it is subject to social rules? Or is it more akin to an act of nature that must be dealt with as and when it arises? It is almost universally assumed that because humans are responsible for climate change in a strict, causative sense, that this automatically brings it within the purview of interpersonal human conduct and should be regulated by social rules. However, what we shall argue here is that simply because human purposeful activity causes an effect does not mean that social rules arise to control that effect. A person, X, makes an external piece of matter, some part of the Earth – whether it be land, wood, water, or whatever – the object of his action because he has recognised it as being scarce and therefore valuable. The result of his action is to transform – i.e. produce – the object (or “good”) from servicing one end to serving another. No other human expressed such a preference as if they had they would have already “homesteaded” the matter, or good, by making it their object of their action first. A human turns this piece of material into servicing a particular need because he prefers that need and the state of being of the good that will meet that need. If another person, Y, comes along and attempts to make the same good the object of his (Y’s) action then the result of this is to divert it away from X’s ends towards Y’s ends. Y’s conduct is, here, subject to the regulation of social rules because X identifies a violent intervention to his property that is attributable to the chosen and purposeful action of Y. There are three key elements in this situation:

  • Goods;
  • An identifiable human (X) who has diverted the goods to a certain end;
  • An identifiable human (Y) who has chosen, deliberately, to divert the goods to another end.

Take away any one of these elements and any talk of social rules becomes meaningless. First, it should be obvious that if there were no goods then there would be nothing to conflict over and social rules would serve no purpose. Secondly, if X did not exist or was not identifiable then there would be no conflict as the good would be ownerless upon Y’s arrived. And finally, if did not exist, or if the intervention of Y was not carried out by a human but, say, by an act of nature then social rules would serve no purpose as they cannot regulate unthinking and unconscious objects.

With climate change, we do not have just one of these elements missing – rather, all three are marked by their absence. First, it is not clear that there are any identifiable goods that are violently interfered with. In other words, is the climate that surrounds a property considered a part of that property (or something that, if changed, can make a violent, physical intervention to that property) or is it something that simply provides varying external benefits and burdens to property which will affect their relative values, in the same way that a conveniently located school might enhance the desirability of nearby houses? Whereas a hurricane would clearly cause untold physical damage and havoc to a property, changes in rainfall, sunshine and temperature may make no appreciable physical intervention at all while, at the same time, enhancing or reducing its desirability. If so, then good weather is tantamount to being something that provides an external benefit to property without intervening, physically, with the property itself. If this is true then other people cannot be forced to continue providing external benefits to your property, nor can they be prevented from carrying out actions that will stop them. If the school decides to close, its owners and managers choosing to devote their efforts elsewhere, and this affects the desirability of your property, few would suggest that you should have a violently enforceable right to enslave them and keep the school open. Or, if my pretty garden enhances the value of your property, should you have the right to force me get out my wheelbarrow and spade? Secondly, there are not necessarily any identifiable individuals that own property that has suffered physical intervention by climate change. Thus far most of the alarmism is only based on hypotheses of future effects and, furthermore, has come not from individual property owners but from governments, their sponsored scientists, activists, environmentalists and political groups. Indeed, given the abysmal record of governments in protecting property from all other kinds of manmade threat we must be extremely suspicious as to why they so enthusiastically champion their own resolution of this one. Finally, and, perhaps, most importantly, climate change is caused not by any one individual but by the action of all humans together. The effect is not caused by the action of any identifiable individual human or identifiable set of humans but is the consequence of the purposeful activity of multiple humans acting independently. A requirement of moral responsibility, and thus, the regulation of an action according to social rules is the individual consciousness that chooses that action. One, single human possesses this consciousness, and this enables him to become morally responsible for actions that are taken even when he chooses to act as part of a group of individuals. All humans together, however, do not possess any individual consciousness that can be held morally responsible for its actions. Humans as a whole, as opposed to individually, are not an individual, sentient, or conscious being. In their collective they are not, therefore, divisible from nature but must, very much, be taken to be a part of it. This is not intended to make the genealogical point that, along with the vegetation and animals, we are all part of the same rock orbiting the sun. Rather, as any one human approaches and considers phenomena arising from humans acting altogether, he must treat and deal with them as phenomena of nature and not as those of an individual being. This still applies even where the groups can be localised – for example, heavily industrialised countries such as the United States will churn out more net carbon dioxide emissions than third world countries (which are often alleged to bear much of the burden of climate change). Simply because people are forcibly “united” by their government or state identity does not mean that their individually chosen action, or action chosen in concert with other individuals, can be held morally responsible for the harm alleged. But even if it did there would still be an enormous problem with causation and proportionality. It is just that an individual should be held responsible only for the harm that he causes and only to the extent that he caused it. How do we know whether a person’s or company’s carbon dioxide emissions caused a change in climate that affected another person’s property and if we do know, then how much? We can, of course, measure net contribution to carbon dioxide emissions. But what if the harm would have happened anyway from everyone else’s contributions and neither the addition nor subtraction of this one person’s emissions would have made any difference?

Indeed, it is not at all surprising that humans would exert some kind of collective side effect upon the Earth that is not reducible to the purposeful behaviour of any single one of them. Larger quantities of anything generally have effects that are either unperceivable or negligible when smaller quantities are considered. Groups of humans have been known to create seismic activity when they jump up and down at the same time1. Millions, if not, several billion people are always walking upon the Earth at the same time. Thus far this has not created any noticeable problem. However, if we suddenly started to see minor tremors causing cracks to appear in buildings from all of those “selfish, profit-seeking” humans walking everywhere, would the most sensible response be to call upon government to regulate how many paces everyone can take in a day, and when? Or should we just to accept the phenomena like an effect of nature and ensure it is accounted for in building design?

Conclusion

Summing up the above argument, therefore, we may conclude that where the purposeful activity of all human beings but of no individual human being, or identifiable group of the same who are purposefully acting in concert, creates certain effects then these effects must be regarded as akin to effects of nature and not of an individually, morally responsible being. The collective “humans” possesses no individual moral responsibility that can be held to account by social rules. Simply because something is induced by the actions of all humans does not mean that any one of the humans is responsible and can be penalised by another human.

The appropriate response to human induced climate change, therefore, is the same response to all of the other problems that nature throws at us – by taking it as a given, understanding its reality as deeply as we can and then learning to act with it symbiotically. This may allow us not only to avoid it but to also, perhaps, use it as an opportunity, as a resource, in ways that, at present, we are not able to consider. Even at the moment it appears far from certain that the effects of climate change will be universally bad and will not have mitigating or even beneficial results. Indeed, those who are so concerned about how we leave the world for our descendants might want to consider whether it is just for us to deny them these possibilities. Nevertheless we should end by saying that none of this means that people should not, individually, act to preserve the climate as it is by restricting net carbon dioxide emissions if that is how they wish to proceed. They are quite welcome to restrict their own emissions and to persuade others to do so. But, as in the pursuit of all other values, they should do so peacefully and voluntarily and not muster the violent hand of the government to enforce it for them at the expense of those who do not share that view.

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1One recent example is when Seattle Seahawks fans jumped up and down in celebration during a game on December 2nd 2013: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-25205548.

The Ethics of Interventionism

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With the US government’s current attempt to carry out some kind of military intervention in Syria as a result of the alleged use of chemical weaponry by the Assad regime, libertarians once again face the question of what their correct stance towards such a proposal should be.

To be libertarian is to believe that the initiation of violence, in any circumstance, is inherently immoral. This belief, termed the non-aggression principle, we have discussed and justified elsewhere. Libertarians recognise, of course, that this does not proscribe the right to self-defence, or the right to provide defence services towards someone else who is the victim of aggression. There are two key elaborations to make to this principle. First, libertarianism itself does not state that someone has the violently enforceable obligation to defend himself or to rush to the defence of other people. There may, however, by some other standard be a moral obligation to do so but this obligation cannot be violently enforceable as this would itself breach the non-aggression principle. It is quite consistent, therefore, to state that someone should help a person who is the victim of aggressive violence but that he should not be forced to do so. Secondly if you do decide to respond to an act of aggression then you do not have the right to inflict aggressive violence on any other person, whether it be forcing them to assist you or by making them the victims of so-called “collateral damage”. One would not launch a nuclear warhead and slaughter the population of entire landmass in order to neutralise a single murderer, for example.

It is these aspects that must be remembered by the libertarian in any debate concerning the ethics of interventionism. The mainstream debate is an all or nothing question – should we all intervene or should we all not intervene. Libertarians for too long have been seduced into accepting the terms of this debate and the resulting lack of unity from the libertarian (or the generally freedom-oriented) camp owes itself to the fact that, on the face of it, the question can be answered on either side from a libertarian-veneered point of view. Let us discuss briefly the problems with each of these responses.

Those who answer in the affirmative, that we should intervene, have rightly recognised that defence may be used in such a situation because the non-aggression principle has been violated by another party. But what they are overlooking is the fact that the funds to be directed towards military intervention are extracted forcibly by the government through tax revenue – in other words, that people are being forced to fund intervention. They are mistaking the right to intervene with a violently enforceable obligation to do so. But this violently enforceable obligation itself is a breach of the non-aggression principle and is, therefore, anti-libertarian and immoral. Such people are most welcome to criticise other people from the point of view of moral standards that are separate from, but compatible with, libertarianism. When, for example, William Hague, the UK Foreign Secretary, stated that any non-response by “the world” to the use of chemical weapons would be “alarming” he is quite welcome to hold that view (in spite of the fact that there has already been wide scale bloodshed in Syria for two years and that Western governments seem to be remarkably selective on what they choose to be outraged by). Indeed he is most welcome to contribute his own legitimately earned wealth (if he has any) and that of everyone he can persuade to join him voluntarily in the venture towards intervening in Syria. But what he does not have the right to do is to force other people, to extract funding by taxes (or to enforce conscription, if it ever came to that), for the same.

Those, however, who answer in the negative – that we should not intervene – rightly recognise that we cannot force people to participate in intervention. But now they seem to be making the opposite mistake of preventing people who do want to intervene from doing so. If someone is genuinely outraged by the infliction of violence by one person against another and believes that assistance against such heinous acts is a worthwhile devotion of his own funds then he is quite within his rights to contribute those funds accordingly, or even to voluntarily join a defence group and personally provide defence support for the victims. To stop someone from doing this if that is what they want is as much an affront to the non-aggression principle as forcing them to do so if they do not want. Once again we must emphasise that it may not be a good thing, by some standard exogenous to libertarianism, for a person to engage in intervention but that does not mean that he may be violently prevented from doing so.

The correct libertarian position, then, can be summarised as follows:

  • No person has the right to initiate violence (aggression) against any other person in any circumstance;
  • Where a person is the victim of aggression he has the right to defend himself;
  • Where a person attempts to defend himself he has no right to initiate violence against innocents during the act of doing so, including their enforced participation and causing “collateral damage”;
  • Where a person attempts to defend himself other people have no right to initiate violence against him in order to stop him from doing so;
  • A person has the right to solicit, contract with or otherwise co-operate with third parties in ensuring his defence;
  • Third parties, likewise, have the right to provide their funds and resources towards defence, either through a negotiated contract (security services) or voluntarily;
  • Third parties providing defence services have no right to initiate force against innocents during the act of doing so; this includes forcing others to contribute towards the same and causing “collateral damage”;
  • Where a third party provides defence services it not may be forcibly stopped from doing so by others;
  • Whether the injured party or a third party should or should not act to defend the former against an act of aggression, or whether such an act of defence is a “good” or “bad” thing by some other moral standard may be debated; however, the conclusion may not be enforced violently on any party that is not committing an act of aggression.

All of this is, of course, the most fundamental libertarian theory towards intervention and we have provided no detailed analysis of how “war is the health of the state” and so on. But these critical aspects must be remembered by a libertarian if he is to take the fundamentally, i.e. most basically correct moral position and serves to only form the bedrock of more elaborate analyses. Whatever he, in accordance with the last principle laid out above, believes of the merits of a specific act of intervention should be informed by and exist in harmony with these principles.

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