Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Three – Consent and Contract

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We will begin our survey of the causative events of legal liability in a libertarian legal system with those that arise from consent because, even though people may view “the law” as being synonymous with wrongs such as crimes and torts, consensual legal relations are, in fact, the most frequent types of social interaction that arise in an individual’s life. The predominant form of legal relations arising from consent is, of course, the contract; a person may enter tens of these contracts every single day by, for example, just purchasing a coffee, a bus ticket, or lunch, whereas most people would scarcely commit a single crime in their entire lives (although the latter becomes less likely in our actual world where governments spill oceans of ink in criminalising, through legislation, even the most innocuous of actions). While any good legal system must have strong proscriptions against horrific acts such as murder and rape, it is the contract that is the primary preoccupation of everyone’s daily lives.

The first question to consider, then, is precisely what is a contract? Although it should be clear that all contracts concern some sort of bilateral arrangement, different legal systems have varying and often elaborate definitions. In English law and in common law systems generally, contracts are agreements or promises made with consideration, that is, some form of good or service that is exchanged (alternatively, deeds can be signed to bind agreements made without consideration). There is, therefore a high degree of freedom of contract with the emphasis of the law being more on the question of the enforceability of the performance specified by the contract. The more prescriptive civil law jurisdictions, on the other hand, are more concerned with the precise rights and obligations that arise as a result of the contract. Further, the bases upon which the legitimacy of contracts rests are also varied and numerous. For example, is it because the promisor intended to be bound in some way, or because the promisee relied upon the promise in order to arrange his affairs in a manner in which he would not have done so but for the promise? Are contracts even promises at all, or are they agreements, and what is the difference? We do not have the space to enter a discussion of the shortcomings of most of these definitions of contracts and their bases of legitimacy1. But for libertarians it should be clear that none of them have much to do with the key concept of property with which all legal relations in a libertarian world are concerned (although the requirement of consideration in English law bears some resemblance to it). What, then, is this essential element of property in contractual relations?

We all know, as “Austrian” economists, that humans act so as to direct scarce resources available to their most highly valued ends. Libertarian theory states that you may do this unilaterally so long as the goods to which you are subjecting your action are ownerless and are, therefore, unvalued by anyone else. We can each arrange ownerless resources to meet our needs in any fashion we like without running into conflicts with other people. However, in a world of interpersonal scarcity, we find ourselves in the position of desiring and coveting the goods that are owned by other people. We would prefer a particular good to be moved to meeting our ends and away from those of the current owner. But libertarian ethics prevents us from unilaterally making goods owned by someone else the object of our action, for then we are invading his property and violating the non-aggression principle. Rather, we have to secure the consent of the owner to move that property from meeting his ends towards meeting ours. The basic purpose of a contract, therefore, is to procure someone else to voluntarily deal with his property in a way other than he is doing so at the moment. It is a method by which we can legitimately secure property that is owned by someone else towards meeting our ends. Contracts are, in effect, extended actions, the extension of gaining consent being necessary in order to overcome the “hurdle” of the title over the property claimed by the existing owner. Normally the securing of this consent requires a “tit for tat” arrangement – “If you will sell me a bar of chocolate, I will pay you 50p”; or “If you pay me £20 I will mow your lawn”. However, this needn’t be so, nor does the initiator of the exchange have to be the one who wishes to get his hands on someone else’s property. As we shall see, gifts are a valid form of contract but in this case it is normally the donor and not the recipient who proposes that a gift should be made.

Why, however, do contracts have the force of law? If they are to be violently enforced then any breach of a contract would necessarily have to be a violation of the non-aggression principle otherwise, in a libertarian world, only non-violent methods of enforcement could be resorted to. The reason is that the contracting party is not just agreeing to do something with his property – rather, he is purporting to grant a title over the property to you. At its fullest extent this may be an exchange of the full title of ownership from him to you, completely extinguishing his title and furnishing you with 100% ownership. However it needn’t necessarily be so – leasehold titles (or the “renting” of durable goods) and easement rights would be valid titles exchanged by contract. Because the owner of property has granted you a title over that property any subsequent interference in that title by him is a breach of your property rights and a violation of the non-aggression principle. Thus, in a libertarian world, it may be enforced by legal sanction.

Contracts, therefore are exchanges, or transfers of title to property. This definition of a contract may be known to readers who are familiar with the “title transfer” theory of contract. Nevertheless there needn’t be a strict “title” to the property in the sense with which this word is understood in contemporary legal systems. It is typical, in economics, to make a distinction between goods on the one hand and services on the other, a good, for example, being an apple that can be eaten whereas a service being, say, a ride in a taxi cab. Legally I would have title to the apple but I would not have title to the taxi cab. Yet all goods are valued for the service that they offer – the apple for the satiating of my hunger and the taxi for its transportation of me from A to B. There is no value inherent in goods, rather the value always springs from the service it is able to achieve in meeting the fulfilment of an end. The distinction arises because “goods” typically service those ends that we can only satisfy from complete ownership – i.e. a title over – and use of the servicing good. I cannot borrow, eat and then return the same apple at a later date – rather, I have to own it in its entirety. “Services”, on the other hand, are those goods that service ends that can be satisfied without complete ownership. Contemporary legal systems do not say that I own or lease a taxi in order to satisfy my end of getting from A to B; nevertheless, I do obtain possession of it for a period of time. Similarly, if I am an employer a legal system would not say that I “own” the labour of my employee. Colloquially, in each case, I might say that I have “hired” a taxi or “hired” my employee but legal systems confer no formal title to either of these things upon me. How libertarian legal systems might unscramble these problems we shall see below.

In order to be the subject of a contract the property exchanged must be alienable from the original owner because transfer of the title requires the abandonment of that good. With the hiring or leasing out of a good the good in its entirety is not, of course, abandoned by the original owner, merely the good’s productive services for the duration of the period of hire. As we shall see labour contracts can be enforced as exchanges of money in return for the performance of the service of labour. Whether or not a person has the ability to entirely alienate from himself the productive services of his body and to transfer them as property (i.e. enter into a contract of slavery) is a contentious area of libertarian theory that we cannot hope to resolve here. Nevertheless we must recognise the fact that libertarian courts will face it as a question.

The contract, therefore, is the execution of the transfer of title from one person to another – it is the instrument that gives it legal recognition. Anything interpreted as being preliminary to an execution of transfer on the part of the transferring party – the promise to transfer, the desire to transfer, the wish to transfer, the hope to transfer, and so on – does not suffice as a contract. It is typical to justify this on the grounds that recognising a promise or statement of desire as a contract would require a person to bind, and thus alienate, his will, something which cannot be done. While may be true, a simpler explanation is that as the statement or promise has not executed transfer of the actual good under consideration, there must, in a libertarian legal system, be some other property that is transferred if there is to be a valid contract. This can only be the thought or desire expressed by the transferring party. But as we noted above, thoughts, feelings, desires and so on are not tangible property and are not capable of ownership. A fortiori they cannot, therefore, be transferred. These thoughts and feelings do, of course, reside in the physical matter of the brain, but aside from the inability to identify and isolate the specific cerebral matter in which these thoughts reside few contracting parties are likely to be intent upon transferring a physical part of their most vital organ. In the absence of any conduct that indicates an actual transfer of tangible property that is the subject of the statement of desire or promise, there will be no contract in a libertarian legal system. Precisely what this conduct will be is for a libertarian courts to decide. This does not mean to say, of course, that promises or expressions of desire do not have moral force even though they lack legal force. We are not stating that a person would not be behaving badly by reneging on his promise; we are merely stating that he may not be subject legal sanction – i.e. the use of force – as a response to this withdrawal. There is also the possibility that agreements masquerading as promises or giving the appearance of promises will be given recognition as contracts by a libertarian court, particularly where the subject matter is clear and unambiguous and the difference turns only on a matter of words. For example, consider the two statements:

“I will transfer £100 to you on Thursday”

“I promise I will transfer £100 to you on Thursday”

The first statement would ordinarily be binding upon the transferring party, the second one would not. However libertarian courts may be loath to dismiss the second as being without legal consequence simply by the insertion of the word “promise”. What has to be remembered is that the entire conduct of the individual is considered and merely because he used the word “promise” does not necessarily mean that he did not intend to action a transfer of title to the £100. For example, if the statement was an off-the-cuff remark then it may be held to be a promise; on the other hand, if it was the conclusion of drawn out negotiations then it may be held to be a binding contract.

It is important to realise that the property need not be in existence or under the legal ownership of the transferring party at the time of contract. If I contract someone to clean my car next week for a sum of money, payable upon completion, I might not have the money now but will do so by the time I come to make payment. Similarly, I might agree to sell someone a car in one month that I do not own now but will be required to arrange for ownership of it before the transfer date. Parties to contracts need to judge, individually, the risk of default involved in entering such contracts. A standard commercial solution that has emerged in our contemporary legal systems is the thirty day credit period where a supplier will transfer a good on day one, will invoice the recipient and the latter will be required to make payment in cash – not existing in the debtor’s possession at the time of the contract – within thirty days. Furthermore, it should be clear that there is no reason why libertarian courts would not recognise transfers taking effect at a future date, so long as the action of the transferring party was interpreted as a statement of transfer and not as mere promise or wish.

Finally, contracts can be oral or written; the difference may, of course, have evidential impacts but as long as the facts of a case are agreed the precise form of the contract makes little difference upon the questions of law.

Types of Contract

Let us therefore investigate the types of situation in which contracts may arise and where a libertarian legal system will be required to interpret and determine the legal outcomes for. There are five such possible situations:

  • The unilateral declaration of transfer of a good (i.e. a “gift”);
  • The exchange of a good for another good;
  • The exchange of a good for the performance of a service;
  • The exchange of a performance of a service for the performance of a service;
  • The unilateral declaration of the performance of a service.

Each of these situations involves the intention to transfer at least a portion of the productive services of property to another individual.

First of all, the gift contract is relatively straightforward – a simple declaration of transfer of property by an individual without any action necessary on the part of the recipient. It is clear in this instance precisely what the property is and who should own it as a result of the transfer – for property is being transferred in a single direction without condition. Even though the receiving party has done nothing he may now (or at a specified date of transfer) consider the title to the property his. He may, of course, refuse, in which case the property would either revert to the transferring party or would simply become abandoned. If, however, the transferring party retain possession of the property it is clear that he has now absconded with what is somebody else’s property – hence he can be compelled by legal remedy – i.e. violent enforcement – to rectify that situation. Possible remedies we shall explore below. Matters become a little more complicated when a good is exchanged in return for another good. There are several ways in which this could, theoretically, take effect. The first is for each party to declare in the contract the transfer of each other’s property, for example, “A hereby transfers to B title to a sum of £100 to B and B hereby transfers to A title to a television set”. Although this could be applied to some situations such a contract appears to be more like two unilateral declarations of transfer (i.e. two simultaneous gifts) than a contract of exchange and this does not correctly interpret the intentions of the parties to the exchange. Few people would suggest that when you buy something in a shop you are “exchanging gifts” as opposed to engaging in mutual trade. People are not simply transferring their property in the hope of getting something back – rather, the transfer of title becomes conditional upon getting something back and title only transfers when something is given back. In other words A will only transfer a sum of £100 to B if B will transfer the title to a television set to A. Very few transactions are physically simultaneous – somebody usually has to transfer their property before they receive the other party’s property in return. Even in a shop when the period of transaction is very short, either the purchaser has to hand over the money before he gets the good or the shopkeeper has to hand over the good before he gets the money. A conditional exchange prevents title to your property passing until the other side fulfils his half of the bargain. Precisely which titles pass and when depends upon the wording of the contract. The contract may specify that B’s transfer to A of the title to a television set will be made upon the transfer of £100 by A to B – in other words, title to the money has to pass first. If B delivers the television set to A in advance then title to the set does not pass; if A defaults, then under this wording the television set is the property which B retains title over (i.e. he gains no title to the money that should have been paid for it). If, on the other hand, A pays in advance then title to the money transfers from A to B immediately and title to the television set transfers from B to A; the television set is now properly A’s and B is required to deliver it. However, if the wording of the contract was the other way round – that A’s transfer to B of the title to money will be made upon the transfer of the television set by B to A – then the situation is reversed and now it is title to the television set that must pass first. If B delivers the television set in advance of payment then it is the £100 that is now his and not the television set; if A pays in advance then he retains title to the £100 until the television set is transferred. Much of this is, of course, theoretical as when it comes to dealing with a defaulting party your primary interest is in pursuing the course of action that gives you the greatest chance of some sort of recovery rather than relentlessly striving after the very property that is yours. Indeed, as we shall see below, most commercial contracts will state the situation that occurs in default by specifying precisely which title exchanges will occur in all possible actions of each party (if person A pays, outcome X will result; if person A does not pay, outcome Y will result, etc.) Nevertheless this theoretical clarity is important for understanding the foundations of the libertarian law of contract and how it is fundamentally based upon the concept of property. Furthermore, we might say that the hire of durable goods – including the leasing of land – falls under this category. The good is not transferred in its entirety but the degree and length of possession transferred is significant enough to confer a leasehold title to the property upon the recipient.

Given this, should not the third type of situation – the transfer of a good in exchange for the performance of a service – fall into the second? As we outlined above, all services depend upon property to carry them out and the recipient of the service is, in effect, hiring the property for the duration of the period of time in which the service is performed – a ride in a taxi being a good example. However, unlike the lease of land, we never say that a person gains title to a taxi and its driver even though in theory we might say that he should so gain. The reason is likely to be precisely as we stated in part one – that legal rules and principles are determined not only by what should be applied in theory but by that which accords with custom, tradition and practical expedience. The rights which result from conflicts arising from scarcity are only those rights that people demand; no one demands rights over goods that are not scarce because there is no conflict over these goods. Where the goods are scarce, however, we must remember that the enforcement of titles and ownership rights, followed by any subsequent remedial action, is itself costly and burdensome. There will, therefore, always be a category of scarce goods where the economic benefit is low and the cost of recovery high so that the conferring of formal titles would be wasteful. It is reasonable to speculate that services fall into this category. A ride in a taxi is of such short duration, the economic benefit minor, and with dozens of rides being carried out for different people every day, people are not willing to demand the security of a formal title in order to resolve any arising conflict. If, on the other hand, taxi rides were to become crucial to welfare or desperately scarce then formal titles may become worthwhile for this purpose. A more likely scenario is if someone wishes to hire a taxi for a number of days in order ferry important guests to and from various functions in which case a formal hire title may be necessary. The same phenomenon will be in operation when the goods providing the services are not delegated exclusively to the possession of the beneficiary. A professional accountant, for example, may deal with dozens of clients from his single office and may switch back and forth between work for a number of them in a single day. Working out a system of titles in such a case would be not only arduous and costly but close to impossible.

In the absence, therefore, of a formal title to the goods providing the service what security is available to the recipient of the service? If he is transferring a good in exchange for the service it is likely that courts recognise this contract as a conditional transfer of the good – for example, A will transfer £5 if B gives him a ride in the taxi. If A does not get his taxi ride then he keeps his money, i.e. title to the money does not pass to B until the journey is complete, regardless of when payment is actually made. This latter aspect is especially important for services that are delivered over a long period of time such as a development or consultancy. Down payments or deposits will be required so that the developer can fund his operations for the period of service but should he fail to deliver then the contracting party can sue for return of the funds as the latter remain his property.

Matters become a little more difficult in the fourth type of situation – that of a performance of a service in return for the performance of a service. For example, A will mow B’s lawn if B gives A a ride in B’s taxi cab. Other examples might be more extensive – A will provide B with consultancy services for a year if B will provide A with IT services. Such contracts are, again, conditional exchanges from which the recipients benefit except that no formal title to property passes. In pure theory no contract should be recognised in this situation because of the lack of the property element. Nevertheless, we can analyse some of the considerations a libertarian legal system may have to face in determining the outcomes of these situations. First, we can say that, as we explained above, the absence of intention to transfer formal titles demonstrates that the parties place a relatively low value on gaining the outcome. It might not matter, for instance, if A mows B’s lawn once but does not gain his taxi ride. In most cases these situations are likely to be cases where the parties are not dealing at arms’ length but are, rather, friends or relatives and where a resulting legal remedy is not intended. In English contract law there is a separate doctrine of “intention to create legal relations” that has led to many problems where the exchange of goods has not been recognised as a contract because the familiarity between the parties has been held to preclude any legal remedy. This is not relevant under libertarian law where the intention to exchange titles to property is an intention to create legal relations and where the exchange of a service for a service manifestly demonstrates an intention not to create such relations. The conferring of a property title demonstrates in the parties the desire for the security of the legitimacy to use force in order to gain the fulfilment of their ends. Where this is absent and there are no formal property dealings then it is reasonable for a court to conclude that such security was not required. Parties always have the option of concluding their arrangements with formal, enforceable titles if they deem the outcome of the contract to be valuable enough; where they do not then they should not expect the remedy of violent enforcement to come to their aid. Libertarian courts will therefore have no problem in recognising contracts between parties who are not dealing at arm’s length (i.e friends and relatives) where titles to property are transferred and any separate doctrine of intention to create legal relations is redundant. Where the provision of services is extended or gives the appearance of having a high monetary value libertarian courts may be willing to recognise an exchange of title if the performance of the service appears to give de facto exclusivity or possession to the recipient over the property that executes it. Again, we must stress that it is the entire conduct of the parties to the agreement that matters and not simply the words that are on the face of the contract (so, in other words, a knowledgeable party could not try to take advantage of an ignorant party by calling what is a transfer of title the performance of a service). Nevertheless, the granting of contractual liability in such cases is likely to be very limited in scope.

It follows from this that the fifth type of situation – the unilateral declaration of a performance of a service – also cannot be an enforceable contract. With regards to both the fourth and fifth situations we can see that any application of contract law to this situation would result in the most innocuous of agreements and declarations falling within the ambit of enforceable contracts. “I will help you with the shopping this afternoon”; “I will meet you in town at 7pm”; “I will clean the bathroom on Sunday”. Absent any demonstrable intention to create titles over property that perform these services the law has no business in these situations.

Breach of Contract and Contractual Remedies

While the focus on this series of essays is on the grounds on which legal liability is recognised and not on legal remedies, it is nevertheless appropriate to consider precisely what the law may compel a contracting party to do in the event that he defaults or breaches a contract. The first and, from the point of view of the receiving party, most ideal outcome is specific performance – full and final delivery of the property that is transferred by the contract. The property belongs to the receiving party and he has the right to compel its transfer. But once again, legal principles will be formed with regards to practical expediency as well as pure theory. Legal proceedings and legal recovery are, as we mentioned above, costly in their own right and very often the path pursued will be that which gives the greatest chance of recovery for the recipient with the lowest cost. In the first place, specific performance may not be available at all where the property has ceased to exist, or has been damaged or altered, a situation which is most likely in the case of perishable goods. In cases where the property has been transferred to a third party, or its location has moved considerably, the cost of recovery may render specific performance difficult and expensive3. In most cases where the property in its original form is no longer in the debtor’s possession, the easier outcome will be to sue for compensation or what has been come to be known in contemporary legal systems as damages – the monetary equivalent of the property that was due. Especially if there are proceeds from the sale of the property to a third party this might provide the greatest chance of recovery. Alternatively, the court may order seizure of other goods in the debtor’s possession to be sold for their monetary value in order to pay the necessary compensation. In English law there are several rationales for why damages should be paid and at least one of them will be prominent in a single case. First, to pay the so-called “reliance interest” of the recipient – i.e. so that the contract is effectively rescinded or “unscrambled” as a result of the breach and someone gets back what they put into the bargain; secondly, to pay the “expectation interest” – that which the receiving party expected to gain from the deal; and finally, restitutionary damages attempt to disgorge from the breaching party any profit he made as a result of the breach. Libertarian law largely transcends these categories. A party is entitled to recover the property that it is legally his as a result of the contract and nothing more; failing this, he may receive its monetary equivalent in damages. On occasions when he is the party receiving the property he will get what he hoped to gain; where he is the party transferring property he will get back what he originally had. Restitutionary cases may be more complex as, properly considered, they are really a part of the wider category of punitive damages. Any punitive or exemplary damages are unlikely to be awarded in the absence of an intention to breach a contract that renders the default as an act of fraud, a consideration we shall explore below.

Under the rule that a person is entitled to recover from a breach of contract only the property that is legally his as a result of that agreement, it should be clear that in most cases “consequential loss” or recovery of further expenditure incurred as a result of the contract is not available to the plaintiff. For example, a person hires an architect to design a building in return for a sum of £100K, and a further £500K is spent on building materials and hiring other services. Before the project can be completed the architect breaches his contract and the project is forced to a halt. The plaintiff can only recover from the architect the £100K paid across to him in return for his architectural services; he cannot recover the £500K spent on reliance of the architect’s performance. The additional £500K forms no part of the property specified in the contract with the architect. In these cases, the likely initiative taken by informed parties, at least, is to arrange the transfer of titles to property to account for all possible actions of each party. The contract with the architect might therefore state “A transfers to B £100K if B performs architectural services for A for project X; if B does not perform architectural services for A for project X then B will transfer to A 50% of the costs incurred by A for project X”. It is always possible, therefore, for parties to structure the property arrangements to account for any envisaged scenario. A court will then interpret the contract against the facts in order to determine and enforce a property arrangement in the result of default or dispute. It should be clear that this also permits penalty clauses – usually precluded in English contract law – to be established in contracts. The contract with the architect could quite easily have said that B will transfer to A 200% of the costs of project X incurred by A in the event that A fails to perform his services. The insertion and acceptance of such clauses in contracts merely indicates the value that is placed on performance by each party and their eagerness to get their hands on each other’s property. Such arrangements are entirely consistent with libertarian property principles.

In sum, based upon both the considerations of theory and of practical expediency, we might state therefore that, under libertarian contract law, a contracting party has a primary obligation to pay the property that is the subject of the contract, and a secondary obligation to pay compensatory damages as an equivalent. This is subject to the further consideration of how, precisely, libertarian courts will classify the status of a defaulting debtor – is he, for example, a thief of what is now the property of the other contracting party and, thus, a criminal who should be subjected to some sort of punishment? Or does he bear something resembling civil liability in our contemporary legal systems and need only furnish compensation? Part of this difficulty stems from the classification of wrongs – that is, for a libertarian, breaches of the non-aggression principle – into crimes or torts. Rothbard, for example, practically abolishes the distinction, upgrading what in contemporary legal systems are described as “torts” (invasions of person and property) to “crimes”, and dismissing altogether the current legal categorisation of crimes as wrongs against the state4. However he then has to admit that all defaulting contractual parties, regardless of the circumstances, are “thieves” who have “stolen” the property of the other party. Faced with the conclusion that a defaulting debtor, who has been unable to pay because of mere hardship or unfortunate circumstances, should be thrown into debtors’ prison he merely states that this would be “beyond proportional punishment”5. This creates the confusing possibility that different legal responses can flow from the same grounds of legal liability. It is conceptually clearer, however, to recognise varying grounds of liability which individually begat uniform responses. As we shall argue in part four of our series there is a case to be made for retaining the distinction between criminal and tortious liability based upon the intention (as objectively viewed by the court) of the defaulting party. If his conduct indicates that he deliberately intended to abscond with the property that he owes (i.e. is a fraudster) then he should be regarded as a criminal and subject to higher sanction. If, on the other hand, he has done his level best to make ends meet and defaults simply because of poor business choices then it is more likely that he would be subject to the equivalent of civil liability. Libertarian legal systems are likely to recognise that it would be a travesty of justice to equate the two situations, and may go further and acknowledge gradations of liability between the two extremes. Unreliable and bad with financial affairs a person may be but this does mean that he should be branded as a dishonest thief who cares for nothing more than himself.

It is at this point where we can return to the consideration of punitive and restitutionary damages. Where a person has not intended to be in the position of being unable to pay the property to the debtor then these damages would clearly be unavailable. Similarly where the property under dispute was a small part of a much larger operation with legitimate property that earned a profit, it would be unjust to disgorge the entirety of the profit from the debtor. More difficult, however, is where the intention of the defaulting party has been to defraud the property owner or where the property has uniquely and with little aid earned a profit for the debtor. In these cases libertarian courts might recognise a punitive or restitutionary element in accordance with an accepted theory of punishment that is compatible with libertarian principles. Consideration of this is beyond the scope of this essay, but we must acknowledge its possibility. Finally, there is also the possibility that fraud or theft might void the entire contractual arrangement and the case will simply be one of a unilateral breach of the non-aggression principle by the defaulting party, i.e. a simply wrong rather than a breach of contract.

Minor Considerations

We can conclude this survey of the law of consent by turning our attention towards some minor considerations.

First of all, there should be no problem with third parties enforcing their rights to property that they acquire as a result of a contract between two other people. For example, A may agree with B that A will pay C £100 if B transfers a television set to A. If B so transfers the television set then title to the £100 is now properly C’s and C can sue for its delivery.

Second is the “problem” of so-called unfair contract terms. These are usually exclusion clauses that relieve the debtor of any excessive burden of liability in the event of a default. In principle there is nothing unjust, from a libertarian point of view, of such clauses if they are agreed to in the contract. All that they would do is specify with objective certainty where the property rights would lie should events X, Y or Z occur. From an economic view, such certainty is designed to avoid the costs of litigating or arbitrating a dispute should the debtor fail to perform. Thus we might say that such clauses grease the wheels of commerce so that every party knows where they stand in the event of a default and the result of every outcome can be ascertained. Particularly if the debtor is a large and complex concern such a corporation, open-ended or uncertain liability in just a single case may bring operations to a complete halt if that case is representative of the corporation’s entire customer base. There is, of course, the possibility that large and knowledgeable parties will include or exclude all manner of terms in the “small print” of a large contract in order to burden the other party. The only tool available to a libertarian court in order to strike these terms from the contract is to find that they were not incorporated as terms in the first place – i.e. they did not form part of the contract at all. Other than that such terms, in a libertarian world, will be subject to legal sanction. This does not mean, however, that there is absolutely no regulation at all of burdensome contractual liability. We are simply saying that the law – the enforcement of rights through violent measures – has no part of it. We must remember that law, legislation and force are the ways of the statist and that this is precisely what we wish to avoid in a libertarian world. Only those acts that breach the non-aggression principle may be subject to the force of law. Where acts do not do this – such as the inclusion of “unfair” terms in a freely accepted contract – then there are plenty of ways of regulating this through voluntary trade. The first is the competition of the marketplace itself. Traders whose standard terms are too harsh will lose out to those who offer laxer terms. Secondly, there is every possibility that contractual scrutiny will be undertaken by private consumer watchdogs and ratings agencies who will refuse to accredit or will otherwise highlight companies who fail to moderate their standard terms of contract. Regulation, in a libertarian world, does not take the form of force and violence but, rather, through better informing you of the options that you can choose. A libertarian legal system will not relieve you of your personal responsibility by voiding a contract that you entered freely but now deem to be “unfair”.

In this vein we can also consider misrepresentation. It should be clear that any representation that induces a party to enter a contract must itself be a term of the contract to the extent that it specifies the nature of the property being transferred. For example, X is induced to buy a washing machine from Y as a result of the inducement that it would “last ten years”. If it only lasts five years, then what can X do? In order to sue for a return of his money, the contract would have to specify that the property transferred was “a washing machine that would last ten years”. If the machine lasts only five years then Y has defaulted as he did not deliver the property that was the subject of the contract. On the other hand, if the contract only purported to transfer “a washing machine” then X has no remedy as a washing machine is precisely what he got. The fact that he relied upon Y’s statement that the machine would last ten years is irrelevant. Of course, guarantees, warranties and other collateral arrangements would serve to protect X in this situation and are perfectly compatible with a libertarian legal order.

Finally, space precludes us from considering many other interesting areas – such as implied terms (i.e. good faith), mistake, frustration of contract, and so on. However what we have expounded should be the general foundations of contract in a libertarian society.

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1For a detailed description and analysis of bases of contractual enforceability, see Randy E Barnett, A Consent Theory of Contract, 86 CLMLR 269.

2See Murray N Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, pp. 134-5.

3If the property has been transferred to a third party then a court may, of course, compel the third party to return the property to its rightful owner. Space precludes us from examining the justice of this outcome in detail here. Suffice it to say here that an individual cannot transfer to another person title to property that the former does not possess in the first place. Hence the third party receives no valid title.

4See Rothbard, p. 51, note 1; 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 p. 409.

5Rothbard, Ethics, p. 144.

 

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Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Two – Self-Ownership and Original Appropriation

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In part one of this five-part series we outlined some preliminary considerations concerning how a libertarian legal system might unfold and develop. We are now in a position to begin exploring the causative events of legal liability in a legal order governed by libertarian prescription.

Prior to considering any specific area of the law such as tort or contract we must explore the ways in which a libertarian legal system will recognise and enforce self-ownership and also the original appropriation of previously ownerless goods. Technically speaking, the latter topic at least could be covered as part of the law of consent. Both self-ownership and titles over goods allow their owner to not only enjoy the productive services flowing from his body and external goods, but equally and oppositely they burden him with the responsibility of ensuring that, through his actions, those goods do not physically interfere with the person and property of anybody else, otherwise he breaches the non-aggression principle – and there is likely to be at least prima facie liability of the owner if property belonging to him is found to have physically interfered with the person or property of somebody else. In the same way that it is unjust to physically interfere with someone else’s property, so too is it unjust to hold someone responsible for property that he has not voluntarily assumed to be his or to have asserted control over through his actions. For example, if the brakes of a car fail and the car rolls down hill before striking a person you are responsible only if it is your car and hence have responsibility for ensuring that its brakes are fully functional. It would be a travesty of justice if, barring any special circumstance, you were held legally liable for someone else causing an accident with their car that they were supposed to maintain. In short, people should not be burdened with the ownership of goods when they have not voluntarily assumed that burden, either by original appropriation or by contract. Nevertheless we will confine our discussion of the law of consent to bilateral arrangements such as contracts and concentrate here on unilateral incurrence of rights and obligations. Our first task, therefore, is to understand very clearly how a libertarian legal system will recognise bodily ownership on the one hand and the original appropriation of previously ownerless goods on the other. As we mentioned in part one we have justified elsewhere these concepts of self-ownership and homesteading of previously ownerless goods, and we will not attempt to further justify them here. We will only assume their equity to be true as our task here is to explain how a libertarian legal system will come to recognise and enforce them or, at the very least, we will enunciate the issues that such a system will face in so doing.

Legal Persons and Self-Ownership

The fundamental task for any legal system, then, is to recognise which entities are legal persons and which are not – legal persons being those who can enjoy rights on the one hand and can be burdened with obligations on the other. In other words who is it who has the ability to both enforce his rights and also bear the responsibility of adhering to his obligations? In libertarian theory it is those entities that demonstrate rational action that possess self-ownership. Such action is demonstrative of desires and choices that lead to action that utilises means to realise ends without being governed purely by instinct, by reflexive impulses or simply by the inertia of external force such as the wind or gravity. Any libertarian legal system is therefore required to determine which entities demonstrate rational action so that they may enjoy both the benefits and burdens of self-ownership. As we stated in part one, it will never be sufficient for an entity to simply possess choices, desires, ends and so on; rather, these have to be publically evidenced and acknowledgeable. Rocks, for example, might possess rational thoughts and feelings that our current level of scientific understanding is unable to detect but the inability of a rock to demonstrate these thoughts and feelings through objectively viewable action renders it outside the category of legal persons. Every human needs to act now and to know what his rights and obligations are now, and the mere possibility that another entity could be discovered to have rational thoughts in the future is not sufficient. The alternative would be to tip toe around every piece of matter and, effectively, to never act at all and thus condemn oneself and the rest of the human race to death. With the requirement of rational action, therefore, it is critical that there is in fact any action at all as much as it is that the action should be rational.

When interpreting this action in order to recognise self-ownership, the basic rule of thumb for the majority of human beings is likely to be “can the person appeal for an enforcement of his rights?” In other words, conflicts over scarcity and the resulting legal disputes with an appeal to morality and justice only arise precisely because the parties to the conflict are able to demonstrate rational action. When a cheetah kills an antelope the antelope’s relatives do not gather together a high council of antelope judiciary ready to subject the delinquent predator to trial. Nor does a human being demand justice from a dog if it bites him (although he may, of course, sue the dog’s owner). Questions of justice arise only between those who are able to appeal to it, such an appeal itself being a rational action. While a libertarian legal system will, of course, have to face the difficult questions of the rights of foetuses, very young children and the mentally disabled (i.e. entities that we regard as human or at least consisting of human tissue but nevertheless may currently lack the ability to demonstrate rational action), it is not likely to be the recognition of individual humans as legal persons that is the greatest problem to preserving liberty. After all, our current statist legal systems cope with recognising the legal status of healthy adults, children, the mentally disabled, and so on, although the rights of unborn babies are still hotly debated. Indeed, we might even say that in some cases the benefits of legal personage are granted too freely when we consider that legislatures and courts often recognise animals (which may demonstrate some similarity to human behaviour but otherwise demonstrate no capability of rational action) as possessing rights. From the point of view of preserving liberty, it is suggested that the more urgent task for a libertarian legal system is not to define which entities are legal persons but, rather, to preserve the content of the rights that a legal person enjoys. In our statist world today we can quite clearly see that it is mostly the dilution of a person’s rights that leads to the loss of that person’s liberty and not the classification of a person as being “without rights”1. What each person appears to be able to enjoy in contemporary legal systems is not self-ownership and the right to private property; instead, it is a concoction of artificial and invented rights and obligations that are bracketed under the term human rights. Human rights, however, are never termed in such a way as to confer their full, irrevocable benefit upon each individual human; rather they are a buffet-selection of open-ended and often contradictory ends that, in most cases, should properly be categorised as goods rather than rights or freedoms. The so-called “right to life”, for example, could mean anything from your right not to be purposefully killed all the way up to your right to demand positive sustenance to keep you alive, the latter breaching the rights of somebody else. Your “right to free speech” may allow you to speak openly against government but does it permit you to break into someone’s house and force them to endure a lecture, thus invading their “right to privacy”? It is left up to government to determine whose rights in these situations should be upheld and whose should yield, meaning that no one truly enjoys any rights at all except by government gift. This is clearly insufficient in a libertarian legal system. Whoever is endowed with the term legal person is entitled to the full and unbridgeable right to self-ownership and to ownership of the goods of which he is the first owner-occupier or the latter’s voluntary successor in title, not some charter of ends that the court has to take it upon itself to balance. There may be some modification of this position in order to accommodate, for example, children who are not yet able to demonstrate rational action to its fullest extent. But for regular, healthy adults the entirety of their right to self-ownership and their full obligation to preserve the self-ownership of other individuals should be applied without exception. Any laws or norms that breach this principle would be invalid as libertarian laws2.

Original Appropriation of Goods

A libertarian legal system having determined which entities are legal persons, it will then be required to determine how legal ownership of previously ownerless goods will be recognised. There are several criteria that a libertarian legal system is likely to require:

  1. There is a tangible good;
  2. Ownership of the good is claimed by a legal person;
  3. The legal person has put the good to productive use;
  4. The productive use has ring-fenced the good from matter not put to productive use;
  5. The good is ownerless.

The first criterion – that there should be a tangible good – might seem trite, but it is worth emphasising that there needs to be matter that is the subject of a physical conflict. While contracts, as we shall see in part three, can deal with property that is not yet in existence but is proposed to come into the ownership of one of the contracting parties in the future, it is clear that claims of present ownership must be over existing goods. Not only will this requirement exclude unreal or imagined entities or objects, but so too will it not capture thoughts, feelings and ideas. Space precludes us from examining in detail whether libertarian legal systems will recognise so-called “intellectual property” but here we must assume that it will not and that all claim of ownership will be over real, tangible, existing goods. Secondly, it should be self-evident that only a legal person can take legal ownership of goods. Objects and animals, as well as not possessing the right to self-ownership, cannot also possess the right to own goods external to them. A banana, a mere unconscious object that cannot own itself a fortiori cannot be said to have rights of ownership over other such objects. Self-ownership is, therefore, a pre-requisite for owning something else. Thirdly, a legal person must have put the good to productive use. In libertarian theory, the first user-occupier of a good is the one who is able to claim the right to original appropriation of that good and, thus, ownership over it3. A libertarian legal system will therefore have to determine precisely which actions will satisfy the demonstration of putting a good to a productive use. Is, for example, touching an object enough to satisfy this criteria, endowing the individual who laid his finger upon the good the exclusive right to its enjoyment? Or is something more required? The key test is likely to be whether a given action produces another good from the original good, in other words it is diverted from delivering one stream of utility to delivering another. This could be something as simple as moving an object from one place to another, gathering logs to use as firewood, removing weeds from soil to plant seeds, and in most cases simple possession may suffice to prove one’s claim to title. The importance of this criterion lies in the fact that a person must be able to demonstrate that he was the first who recognised the good as a scarce and valuable entity and so deliberately laboured in order to ensure that the good provided its highest valued utility. Fourthly, the productive use of the good must extend over the entirety of the physical good claimed and thus serve to clearly ring-fence the good from matter that is not put to productive use. As we said in part one, the purpose of rights and ownership is to avoid or otherwise resolve conflicts arising from scarcity – this cannot be done unless the matter over which a person claims a right is encircled by a clear boundary, a red line over which people know they must not cross. For most self-contained objects, this will not present too much of a problem. One log of wood for instance, in bounded within the physical limits of the good itself – when I move it from the wood to my home in order to use as firewood it is clear that the extent of my productivity is limited to that log and not to an indeterminate quantity of the forest. It becomes more difficult when this is not the case. One example that is used frequently as an objection to the homesteading principle is if several people are swimming or sailing to an ownerless island does the first one to reach it claim the entire island? Or if a person stands on a cliff and urinates into the sea, is he entitled to ownership of the entire ocean? The answer is no, because the extent of the person’s physical presence has not served to ring-fence the entire island or the entire ocean within his sphere of productivity. The person’s valuable ends were achieved without any productive effort being extended beyond his immediate location. If a person wishes to claim ownership over the entire island or the ocean he must be able to demonstrate the extent of his productivity over that entire matter. His ownership will stop at the point where evidence of productive use also stops, and the matter within that sphere of productivity will be ring-fenced. There will be cases where a person may have exerted (at least in his mind) productive effort but there is insufficient evidence to prove that such an effort has ring-fenced property. The most typical type of example will be on boundaries of homesteaded land. If a person has homesteaded an allotment, that part of the garden where crops have been planted and are growing will clearly be part of the ring-fenced allotment. However, at the boundary of the allotment, will say, evidence of a dropped tool a few metres from the nearest crop, or a single footprint made when the gardener stood back to view his work, serve to extend the boundary of the homesteaded land to these locations? Clearly, if the gardener had erected fencing to close in his land then this would itself consist of productive use and this problem would not exist. A related problem is where productive use has apparently extended to only part of a good yet an individual alleges that the whole good is necessary to fulfil his ends. An example is if I draw water daily from a small lake by standing on its edge and then someone else begins to draw water from the other side, can I complain that this latter person is violating my private property? A libertarian court is likely to conclude that the answer is no as if the entirety of the lake was of value to me then I should have extended my productive efforts to ring fence the whole thing. Instead, my only productive acts extended to a small portion of the water available each day thus I did not demonstrate that the remainder of the water was of any value to me. Water rights are, of course, a complicated issue, especially with regards to flowing water but we can acknowledge that in clear cases where it was possible to fully homestead a good and that opportunity was not taken a person cannot later complain that his rights were usurped. Furthermore, the lack of clear boundaries of productive action would lead to obvious absurdities. Whenever a person puts anything to productive use this matter will be connected to the entire Earth – nay, the entire universe. Was the first person who trod on the virgin soil of the planet able to claim ownership over the entire thing? Fifthly and finally, the good must, of course, be ownerless and no one else must have previously satisfied the criteria we have just elaborated. If another person has done so then this latter person’s title trumps that of the claimant. An important consideration in this regard is that a libertarian legal system will have to determine which actions of a person who owns a good are sufficient to determine the abandonment of and, hence, the loss of ownership over that good. This is important for two reasons – first, to determine if a subsequent person may extend productive use over the good and thus claim ownership over it without contravening the rights of the previous owner; and secondly, to determine if the first owner is liable in the event that the good physically interferes in someone else’s property. If, for example, a person builds a house and, after a period of time, abandons it and it falls into disrepair it may subsequently collapse into a neighbouring dwelling. If the original owner of the collapsed property still owns it then the owner of the damaged, neighbouring property may be able to sue him; if not, and the collapsed house is ownerless and is wholly placed back into the sphere of nature then the collapse is of the same ilk as a tree falling or a lightning strike and so the owner of the neighbouring property will be without remedy against anyone else. As we shall see, the contract is one method of exercising the abandonment of a good by transferring it to another individual and the terms of contracts may selectively nullify the original owner’s liability for past actions vis-a-vis the property, transferring this liability to the new owner.

Conclusion

Having, therefore, outlined how a libertarian legal system will determine who has self-ownership and how the original title to goods will be established, we can now, in the remaining parts of this series, turn our attention to specific causative events of legal liability.


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Please note that this post received minor revisions on January 16th, 2018.

1This is not to suggest, of course, that attempts to categorise individuals as being below the status of full a legal person have not been made. In the former Soviet Union, for example, a declaration that a person was mentally disabled and thus subject to fewer rights (if any) was a convenient method of disposing of political opponents. Nazi racial doctrine regarded certain races as being sub-human although that creed’s inability to think in anything other than collective rather than the individual perhaps makes little difference. Furthermore, the current war against terror seemingly allows governments to categorise so-called “terrorist suspects” as “enemy combatants”, suspects who have been denied the full rights due to that latter category under the Geneva Convention.

2The legal status of collectives acting as a single, legal person – such as incorporated associations and companies – we will not discuss here.

3In addition there are also easement rights but we shall, for the sake of brevity, concentrate on ownership rights.

Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part One – Foundations of Libertarian Law

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One of the more fascinating but less discussed areas of libertarian theory is how law and legal systems will operate in a libertarian society. To complete such a survey in its entirety would take a lifetime of study and authorship of one or several treatise-length works. We shall, therefore, be placing a very necessary limit to the scope of this survey by concentrating on where, why and how legal liability would arise in a libertarian society – in other words, our primary question will be “what are the causative events that trigger liability?” We will not be exploring in detail the further questions of legal responses to this liability such as punishment, retribution, restitution and so on, nor will we be exploring in too much details the question of how competing police and civil or criminal court systems might operate (except, as we shall see below, to contrast them to state-based legislative law-making systems). Even so the treatment of this topic of liability alone will still contain many omissions and areas requiring expansion with more detail. Nevertheless we hope to lay the foundations of how libertarian law might operate.

This, first part of a five-part series will examine what law is from a libertarian perspective, how different areas of the law can be categorised and how legal principles will arise in a libertarian society. Part two will investigate how libertarian legal systems will recognise self-ownership and the original appropriation of ownerless goods. Parts three and four will explore the laws of consent and of torts respectively while part five will deal with some miscellaneous but nevertheless significant considerations.

What is a Law?

The question “what is law?” has caused a fierce and unsettled debate in the history of jurisprudence. The main bone of contention has been between a school of thought known as legal positivism on the one hand and those such as natural law on the other. As a very crude summary, positivism states that the existence and validity of a law is dependent upon its formal characteristics while analysis of its substance or content is a separate consideration. For example, for the positivist a law mandating that all ginger-haired people be shot could still be a law depending upon its source; whether that law is a just law and whether there is an obligation to obey it is a further consideration not contingent upon the classification of the norm as a law. Other schools of thought, however, find it difficult to divorce the consideration of what a law is from its merits, ultimately stating that an unjust law is not a law, or is at least, in some way, legally deficient. A third line of thought, that of Ronald Dworkin, appears to approach the question from an epistemological route, arguing that questions of law cannot be resolved without resort to moral standards and considerations.

The restricted scope of this essay notwithstanding it would be futile to attempt to settle this long-standing debate here. Our preoccupation, in determining where legal liability arises in a libertarian society, is with what the law should be and we are not particularly concerned with whether, in some other society, a certain posited norm is or is not law depending on the equity of its content. We will, therefore, reserve some modest observations on this question for a postscript that appears at the end of this essay. Nevertheless we do need to analyse precisely which aspects of law separate a legal obligation from some other obligation such as a convention, a custom, manners, or a tradition, an analysis that should be general enough to be lacking in contention in regards to the unresolved philosophical problem that we just cited. There are two aspects of law that we will explore that serve to distinguish it from other obligations.

Law and Enforceability

The first of these aspects concerns law’s enforceability. All norms are, of course, “enforceable” in one way or another. If you believe that I am behaving in breach of a moral obligation in some way then you can withdraw your association with and funding of me, a situation that may cause me to assess my behaviour. However, such enforcement does not compel obedience and, indeed, should I accept your withdrawal I may decide that I wish to carry on with my behaviour regardless. The difference with a law, however, is that it is a violently enforceable rule – that is, adherence to it may be compelled by the use of force1. Governments, of course, do this in our society today. If you break a criminal law then they will lock you up in prison, and in a worst case scenario, kill you, especially if you try to defend yourself. If you break a civil law then they may confiscate some of your property. With a mere manner or custom, however, this is not the case. If I break wind at the dinner table a gang of heavies does not break down the door and drag me away. The host may choose to exclude me from his house, of course, and then I might be dragged away, but that is because the withdrawal of his invitation to stay means that I am now invading his private property and not because I displayed bad manners per se. The character of law being a violently enforced social rule we will carry forward into our libertarian world, even though we do not necessarily know who would be the enforcer. It could be oneself where self-defence is required; or a private security agency or arbitrator; or, for minarchists, it may still be the state itself. All we need to know is that the incurrence of legal liability would result in someone being exposed to violence in order to enforce that law.

What, therefore, are the causative events that will trigger this liability, this subjection to violent enforcement, in a libertarian world? To answer this, we need to recall the fundamentals of libertarian ethics of self-ownership and private property. We have elsewhere detailed the justification of these concepts so here we will simply restate these principles and assume that they are true. The question of what is ethical behaviour arises from the physical scarcity of goods in the world. The products of answering this question – social rules – are designed to avoid or otherwise resolve interpersonal conflicts arising from the fact of scarcity2. The libertarian answer to this question is that every individual human being has the exclusive right to possess his own body free from physical molestation by other human beings. Similarly, everyone has the right to control, exclusively, the goods of which he is the first user, i.e. those goods with which he has “mixed his labour”. These two types of right are ownership rights – self-ownership and ownership over external things (“private property”) respectively. Full ownership is not the only type of right over property that one may possess. A category of rights falling short of it is easements. Easement rights often fall over additional goods as a result of the acquisition of and use of the primary, owned good (provided that the additional goods are also ownerless). For example, I may homestead a plot of land on which I build a fire. The smoke from the fire blows onto neighbouring, ownerless land; I thus obtain an easement to keep blowing smoke onto this latter piece of land that I have not homesteaded. A latecomer to the other land is bound by these rights and may not claim to supersede them by attempting to stop me from emitting smoke from my fire. Similarly, if he wanders onto my plot of land uninvited, he is violating my right of ownership. Critically, however, as we justified in our earlier essay on morality, these rights are violently enforceable – that one may not only pronounce his rights to his body and property, but that also he may use violence to enforce them. In a libertarian world the only the time when violence may be used legitimately is when someone physically aggresses against the property over which you have these ownership and easement rights. As laws are, as we have said, violently enforceable social norms, it follows that all libertarian laws will be concerned with enforcing these rights to oneself and one’s property. Norms that that do not protect private property and enforce the non-aggression principle should either be categorised as some other, non-violently enforced moral obligation (for example, “one should look after one’s family), or, if the norm itself breaches the non-aggression principle (for example, A should take a portion of B’s income), then it should be classified as being a breach of the law, or as an anti-law.

Is it possible for us to further categorise these norms? The late Peter Birks, an especially keen advocate of mapping and categorisation of concepts in English Law, suggested that causative events of legal liability could be divided into four classes – wrongs; consent; unjust enrichment; and miscellaneous events3. “Wrongs”, the category that most immediately springs to mind whenever a lay person is asked to name a law, are instances where a person initiates some proscribed behaviour against another, without them necessarily having any prior relationship. Crimes, such as murder and assault, and torts, such as causing death or injury through an accident, are all wrongs, the wrongful behaviour itself being sufficient to trigger legal liability, usually coupled with an examination of whether the defendant deliberately intended the harmful outcome or whether it was just accidental. Events categorised as “consent” are those where a person has given his prior authority to be legally bound if he performs (or fails to perform) an action. The largest of such events are, of course, breaches of contract – behaviour that, ordinarily, would attract no attention of the law but for the fact that a person consents to be bound4. For example, I may contract to sell you a car for an agreed price and then fail to deliver the car. The act of retaining my car and not delivering it to you is not, ordinarily, something that would attract legal liability, but because I consented to be legally bound by the terms of the contract then my failure triggers legal liability. Another area of the law that would fall under the heading of consent is most of trusts law, where property is held “on trust” by one person for the benefit of another (although trusts themselves may be more correctly classified as legal responses to causative events as courts impose trusts under a variety of circumstances). “Unjust enrichment”, the third major category of causative event, comprises all situations that are akin to the mistaken payment of a non-existent debt. If, for example, I owe you £10 – a legitimate debt – and accidentally pay you £20 in settlement, then, excluding the possibility that I am making you a gift, it would be said that you have been “unjustly enriched” as you were not owed the additional £10, and may be liable to make restitution of the overpaid sum.

While this categorisation suggested by Birks provides a degree of conceptual clarity, we have to admit as libertarians that it is not sufficient. All laws in a libertarian society are proscriptions against aggression and violence against a person’s body and private property and hence, all causative events of legal liability might be described as “wrongs”, against property. Aggression against property, i.e. the breach of the non-aggression principle, is the golden thread running through the fabric of legal liability in a libertarian society. As we shall see, even when a contract is breached the resulting legal liability arises as the breach is an affront to the private property of the other contracting party. Our investigation will therefore concern in which circumstances the non-aggression principle is breached and how the law may respond to such breaches. Nevertheless, in carrying out this investigation, the distinctions in Birks’ framework certainly have their use in understanding the different types of situation in which the non-aggression principle is breached and we shall proceed to follow it in our analysis.

Legal Systems

The second aspect of law that we need to explore is that, in contrast to other social rules, legal norms and principles cohere into a definable and discernible legal system. When we speak of “the law” we mean that there is a body of laws and we are expected to know what they are, or at least have the ability to find them out. Even in so-called hard cases where the law is not necessarily clear we can expect the subsequent judicial “discoveries” to form part of the law.

Why do we need this system of law? Other norms may, of course, be explained, codified, or tacitly understood as belonging to a body of rules to which we should adhere. But why is there this exalted and enhanced status for law? Why does the law exist as a body of meta-norms that require this systemic determination?

The reason lies in the uniquely physical aspect of law’s enforcement. As we know from “Austrian” economics the valuations of individual humans are expressed through their physical actions. A person always devotes his action to achieving his most highly valued end first. With all norms such as customs, traditions or manners that have no physical enforcement it is possible for all parties to achieve their most highly valued ends in the face of non-physical enforcement as each party is still free to act so as to arrange his affairs as he pleases. There is no a priori reason to determine that one party has lost while another has gained. With laws, however, this is not the case. Their uniquely violent enforcement results in the enforced party being physically restrained from carrying out his intentions to the benefit of the enforcing party. The latter, therefore, in being able to continue to act, achieves his highest valued end whereas the former, the party restrained, cannot do so as he is prevented from acting. There is, therefore, a transfer of wealth that takes please with the enforcement of a law. Coupled with this is the strong degree of power that law’s enforcement confers upon the enforcing party and the potentially devastating effects it can have upon the enforced party. It is very easy, for example, for us to physically intervene in someone else’s person or property to achieve what we want, arguably much easier than persuasion or offers of trade. Similarly, the effects upon the victim are much more profound than anything non-physical, possibly including even death if the violated norm is deemed so to permit. It is, therefore, extremely tempting for people to masquerade norms as just laws when all they really do is redistribute wealth from one party to another. Indeed, most libertarians will be (at the very least) sympathetic to the idea that this is what most modern positive laws, enacted by democratic governments, attempt to achieve.

Because these aspects do not apply to other norms it matters far less if they are only spoken, tacit, incoherent or based upon subjective appreciation. However the powerful effect of laws causes us to demand a more objective and coherent method of their determination. Indeed, one interesting question in the “what is law?” debate we mentioned earlier is whether it is possible to suggest that any system of law, which implies that there is at least some semblance of the rule of law, is not morally neutral and that certain prescriptions and procedures for determining, disseminating and enforcing the law may themselves have moral value. In short, having a system is a good thing in and of itself. However, let us now turn to examining the requirement of objectivity in more detail.

Law and Objectivity

As we have stated laws are social rules, that is, that they arise in order to govern interpersonal behaviour. We know from “Austrian” economics that all valuation is subjective and all action in relation to property ultimately concerns ends that are held by an individual human that reside only in that particular human’s mind. All conflicts between these ends, therefore, are also products of people’s minds and they sit wholly within the mind. There is no value to any good unless a person thinks that there is and there is no conflict over that good unless one person’s valuation interferes with someone’s else’s. However, the purpose of self-ownership, private property, and any legal system that is based upon those institutions is to publically broadcast these subjective intentions and valuations so that other people know how to behave and avoid any physical contest. Avoiding conflicts would be futile if I do not know what is yours and you do not know what is mine. Here, then, we have a problem for the content of a person’s mind, where all valuations and conflicts exist, cannot be demonstrated in such a public way. I cannot know, for instance, if you think that you have ownership over a car or a piece of land and any speculation on my part would be fruitless. From the point of view of purely theoretical ethics, if A wants to sell a widget to B in exchange for money, it may be sufficient for them only to think in their minds that they have so consented to this transfer of property. Theoretical ethics may conclude that the money now belongs to A and the widget may belong to B. But such a situation is woefully inadequate to create objectively identifiable legal liability. For how are other people, in the absence of telepathy, supposed to know that these relations have been created? How do either A or B expect to hold the other liable in the event that the other party breaches? Rather, what matters in any situation is not what is thought subjectively but, that which is objectively interpretable. Fortunately, as we said above, we know that a person’s valuations are always demonstrated by his actions, and actions are publically viewable. A person carries out a certain action because that action is devoted to means that will bring about valuable ends. From this it is possible for other humans to interpret the action and hypothesise upon the subjective valuation. Therefore, any event giving rise to legal liability needs to consist of concrete action that can be evidenced and then interpreted according to publically acknowledged standards in order to determine where the legal rights and obligations lie. In other words, how your objectively viewable actions demonstrate your intentions is within the realm of legal interpretation and regulation, not those intentions themselves.

Some problems that our libertarian legal system is likely to face, then, are as follows. First of all is the concept of self-ownership itself, the heart of libertarian ethics – when does this ownership begin? Is it at birth, at conception or somewhere in between such as at the point of foetal viability? Or do sperm and egg cells have the right to self-ownership too? What do these entities need to do or possess in order to demonstrate that they have self-ownership? With external goods, which acts of mine are necessary in order to determine when a good becomes legally owned by me? Is touching it enough or do I need to do something more concrete? If I subsequently abandon my owned good, which acts of mine are sufficient to bring about abandonment and return the good to the realm of the ownerless? Obviously just walking off my property to go to the shop would be a ridiculously low threshold but where should this threshold be set? Perhaps after a year or so? Five years? And, if any of these, why? Furthermore when we consider aggression, when does aggression actually take place? We are used to answering this question as any uninvited physical interjection of one piece of property by another, but many physical interjections are simply innocuous. If I was to light up my house like Piccadilly Circus the resulting light pollution would surely give the neighbours grounds for complaint. Yet if I just live normally the lamp from my living room may also beam light waves from my property on to theirs. Both are the same kind of act, just to different degrees. Where is the cut-off point of light beam intensity where peaceful behaviour stops and aggression warranting legal liability begins?

Some of these problems we can attempt to tackle theoretically. We can, for example, theorise that sperm cells, devoid of any rational consciousness, will not be accorded the right to self-ownership. But for many more of these questions it will not be possible to derive their answer by deduction. Rather, legal systems will be tasked with interpreting behaviour from the point of view of custom, behavioural conventions, traditions and, indeed, economic expedience. For example, if A wishes to sell a widget to B, how should they conclude this transfer so that it is subject to legal enforcement? Do they have to say something? Do they have to make some bodily signal (such as putting one’s hand up at an auction) that is customarily taken as an intention to make a transfer? Can B just give the money to A and then A the widget to B with no conversation whatsoever? Or do they have to draw up a telephone-directory length contract spelling out clearly all of the rights and obligations that each of the parties holds? Compounding this difficulty is the fact that different cultures will have different customs and conventions that call for different legal interpretations of an action – the same action meaning something entirely different in one country from what it does in another. But so too will different situations within the same culture have different requirements. The sale or lease of a large property, for instance, may require weeks of negotiations and drawing up a specific contract, whereas such a necessity would clearly be wasteful if you just want to buy a chocolate bar. Indeed we are used to some of these customs and conventions generating legal liability in our own experience. If I go to a petrol station and fill my car with fuel it is assumed that I have the obligation to pay for it and that the garage owner is not making a gift of the fuel to me, even though we have not exchanged any words. Similarly if I sit down at a restaurant and order from the menu it is assumed that I will pay for the food after I finished my meal. If, on the other hand, the proprietor says “on the house” then this social custom would be sufficient to indicate that a gift is being made to the guest and it would be unjust for the proprietor to attempt to charge me upon leaving. However we can quite easily imagine in another culture that the situation would be entirely different. Ruritanian tradition might state that if you sit down as a guest in an establishment and food and drink is served at your table with no mention of payment then the host is considering you as his guest rather than his customer and so you are not burdening yourself with any legal obligation to make payment. The same actions in different cultures and traditions are, therefore sufficient to generate different legal outcomes5.

In all cases, therefore, what will matter from a legal point of view is not what you subjectively intend from or think about any situation in which you find yourself; rather it is how your behaviour demonstrates your intentions, or how you held yourself out as intending and how that behaviour can be interpreted and this interpretation will not only be based upon the action itself but in its customary, traditional and conventional context6. In some cases, people may find themselves liable for outcomes they did not intend, but by their behaviour they demonstrated a contrary intention. And in other cases they may not be able to enforce that which they did intend because their evidenced action gave no indication of that intention. This may be very unfortunate for the individual concerned but legal demarcation of rights and obligations has to be publically evidenced and interpretable and this, ultimately, is all that matters. Putting up your hand at an auction would not unbind you from making a bid simply because you were trying to wave at someone.

This fact – that we do not know precisely which behaviour will give rise to legal liability – may frustrate “Austrian” economists and libertarians who so are accustomed to reaching conclusions a priori. Suddenly, here, we find ourselves in the position of having to hold our hands up and say “I don’t know!” what the legal outcome may be to a particular situation. It is, however, something we have to accept, just as we do not know who will build the roads in a libertarian society or how the sick will be cared for. “I don’t know” is a viable answer to a question when that question is not strictly theoretical. However we do not necessarily have to worry that legal systems will outlandishly interpret behaviour that is manifestly one thing as being something else. The task of defining and interpreting action falls to either competing jurisdictions in a minarchist society or to competing private courts and adjudicators in an anarchist society. Those jurisdictions that become the most successful will be those that adopt legal principles whose interpretations of the parties’ physical behaviour most closely match their subjective intentions. To give an exaggerated example, no legal system can survive very long if a person acts so as to buy a sandwich yet he ends up being legally liable for a house. People would flee the jurisdiction or seek out alternative private courts and arbitrators.

One shrewd objection to the proposition of competing courts and jurisdictions is that they suggest that the justification for libertarian ethics must be circular, for example:

Q:      “Who determines when private property is violated?”

A:       “Competing law courts”

Q:      “Why are these courts allowed to compete?”

A:       “Because to outlaw them with violence them would be an invasion of private property”

Q:      “Who determines when private property is violated”?

Such reasoning, however, misunderstands the purpose of competing courts and jurisdictions, which is not to determine the ethical validity of self-ownership, private property and the non-aggression principle but is, rather, to determine precisely which actions will give rise to fulfil these principles. It is perfectly consistent to state that aggression against private property is theoretically unethical while leaving competing courts and jurisdictions to flesh out these concepts by determining the precise actions of individuals that cause them to arise in governing interpersonal behaviour7.

Legislation or Judge Made Law?

In today’s society we are used to the generation of the system of law through the enactment, administration and enforcement of laws by state entities, in particular legislatures. In addition to our willingness today to acquiesce to the normative validity of positive law (indeed, simply stating that a rule is “the law” seems to be enough to require subservient obedience), we have come to view legislation as being synonymous with law at the expense of law and legal principles discovered through adjudicated cases. As libertarians, however, we must view the primacy of legislation – laws enacted by the very entity that is a threat to freedom, the state – with suspicion. Stephan Kinsella has written a compelling case for why legislation is incompatible with freedom and that only a system of decentralised law determination can adhere to libertarian principles8. To the very valuable points that Kinsella makes we will add one more here. Law, being a subset of social rules, arises, as we said above, in response to conflicts born out of the situation of scarcity. These conflicts, however, are a product of the human mind and do not exist otherwise. Only when two people recognise a conflict is there any need for a social rule to determine who has the right to the scarce good. If there is no conflict then social rules are simply superfluous. With judge-made or decentralised law-making that is born out of real cases the resulting law is a product of just that – real conflicts between real people. Legislation, however, is not a product of these conflicts between individuals but a product of conflicts between individuals and the state. The state decides unilaterally that there is a conflict and then possesses the means – legislation – to resolve the conflict in its favour. Whereas in front of a court or arbitrator individuals have to prove the substance of their rights, the state can simply enact them at will. Hence, in a decentralised law-making system the volume of law will remain relatively restricted and, while determined by heterogeneous bodies, will be united by the threads of common and recurring principles. This will be compounded by the discipline imposed on private courts and arbitrators to keep costs low and certainty of outcomes in like cases high, the ignorance of which will simply cause them to lose custom to those providers who do not. Legislation, however, grows with the metastasising state, a state unbound by the discipline of cost and competition, overwhelming the citizenry not only by its size but its lack of coherence and its technicality, a lack of coherence resulting from its basis on the whim of the governing parties rather than any sound body of principle. Indeed, we are now in the position where it is possible for each person to technically breach a law each and every day. Not only this, but laws can change from enforcing one end to enforcing the precise opposite with the result that nobody knows precisely where their rights and obligations lie9. Only the modest blessing that government mechanisms tend to be slow and unwieldy in enacting and enforcing its desires offers any comforting respite. As Kinsella also recognises, the aura of uncertainty that is created by such a situation has profound economic effects, reducing the rate of time of preference, lowering the rate of saving and investment and retarding economic growth.

The most that we could possibly say for the role of legislation in a free society is that it would be enacted to remove from decentralised law some inconsistency, lack of clarity, or heinous and obvious injustice but one even has to question this. Most of the occasions on which this has arisen in the English common law result from the monopoly privilege enjoyed by that system and the consequent artificial restrictions and rules it was able to impose upon itself. For example the doctrine of binding precedent, or stare decisis, the idea that later courts are bound by the previous decisions of at least a higher court, has served to preserve bad principles in the common law for decades simply because they formed part of the ratio decidendi of some earlier case. Even though the House of Lords, then England’s highest court, removed this restriction from themselves in 196610, the further belief, on the part of the judiciary, that they are subordinate to the legislature and should not attempt to “legislate from the bench” only invites the necessity of legislation to overrule well entrenched but bad doctrine. One example was the rule, part of the doctrine of privity, that only parties to a contract could enforce the terms of that contract whereas third party beneficiaries of the same contract could not. So if A contracts with B to pay C, B can enforce the contract whereas C, as a third party, cannot. The effect of this was to render C unable to enforce his title to property that he had gained, a fact that was not lost on even the un-libertarian minds of the English judiciary and academia. But so well entrenched was this doctrine that judges in successive cases refused to overrule it and the manifest injustice was only finally removed when parliament reformed the doctrine of privity in the Contracts (Rights of Third Parties) Act in 199911. Clearly these restrictions would not exist in a decentralised system of law-making. No court is absolutely bound by what another has ruled and none would shy away from overruling the bad decisions of other courts because of some illusion of having to defer to legislative supremacy. In any case, in a decentralised system, the ultimate judges of the good law will be the “consumers” of law themselves – those who have conflicts to resolve. Those courts and jurisdictions that practise false and outlandish law will simply lose custom to those that rule justly, prudently and with a high degree of certainty and adherence to well-established principles.

Conclusion

Having therefore laid the foundation for law and legal systems in a libertarian society, in the remaining parts of this series we shall proceed to examine the precise causative events that would give rise to legal liability.

POSTSCRIPT – Observations on the Question “What is Law?”

Concerning the primary issue of legal philosophy – whether the validity of a law depends upon its sources or its merits – the question is an unusual one in that it effectively defines the scope or place of its own field. If the validity of a law depends upon its merits then it would seem that legal philosophy is simply an extension of political philosophy (itself a subset of ethics). Law would be merely the real and concrete embodiment of norms that we derive from our political values. If, on the other hand, the validity of a law depends not upon its merits but upon certain descriptive qualities then it seems that legal philosophy is more of a branch of sociology, looking to patterns of human behaviour – the creation of legislatures, judiciaries, and people’s recognition of the legitimacy of the resulting norms – in order to determine whether there is law.

There are several modest comments and speculations we can make concerning this important question of legal philosophy. The first is the ambiguity – or rather, the strength – of the term “law” in the English language. In the natural sciences the term is understood to mean a fixed and (barring the possibility of falsification) immutable fact of the universe that is unalterable by human will. The application of this same term to social rules and positive law confers upon these rules the same impression of rigidity and immovability and – in all likeliness – the requirement of compulsion and obedience. Just as people understand that they are not free to violate the law of gravity so too, as a consequence, do they feel that they may not contravene a social rule simply because it is called a “law”. In other words, the use of the term “law” itself may be the cause of the descriptive qualities of law that positivists require for its existence. Were it the case that some other term was used to denote positive law then these qualities might be absent in all cases except where there are just social rules – in other words, laws validated by their merits. It is perhaps not coincidental that many of the significant post-war scholars in jurisprudence – such as H L A Hart, Ronald Dworkin, John Finnis and Joseph Raz – who were or are either significant promoters or critics of legal positivism, made their arguments in the English language. It would certainly be interesting to investigate the possibility in order to draw a more firm conclusion upon this point.

Secondly, and in light of what we have just said, even though there is doubtless a great deal of knowledge and understanding to be gained from these descriptive aspects of law and where or how they appear in different societies, we have to, as libertarians, recognise the contribution that legal positivism has made to the impression that positive law is not only valid but is a reason for its obedience. In answer to the question why a person should or should not do a certain act, the answer that it is “the law” is taken as sufficient justification for that action or non-action without further enquiry. Even though positivists may claim that the question of whether a law is just is important but separate from the question of legal validity, if they had hoped to achieve a measure of clarity by maintaining the gulf between those questions they must at least find it perplexing that the world today appears to languish in hopeless confusion of the two. This does not mean, of course, that positivism is the only or sufficient cause of this problem. Doubtless the foundation of governments upon a democratic order has served to disseminate the impression that all rules and edicts that originate from that order are just for that very reason. But it is likely that any attempt to proceed upon a positivist line of thinking without greatly emphasising the importance – nay, the precedence – of the question of which norms are just and which are not will simply cause that question to recede into the background and for the simple facts of institutions, legislatures, judiciaries and legal processes etc. to deliver a feeling of compulsion in the average citizen. It would be naive, even dangerous, for libertarians who sympathise with positivism to not be alert to this aspect.

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1Technically speaking, we should say that a law is a violently enforced norm rather than an enforceable one in order to retain our analysis within the realm of description. If we begin to discuss what is enforceable we could be suggesting either that a norm’s classification as a law depends upon the ability to enforce it or on the legitimacy of doing so. All that we are interested in here, however, is that laws are norms that may, for whatever reason, be violently enforced. Interestingly, much legal philosophy, while recognising the need for “social institutions” such as courts and police to “enforce the law”, do not state or examine explicitly this uniquely violent aspect of law’s enforcement.

2Every political philosophy, whether it advocates anything from a socialist tyranny to individualist anarchy, is ultimately a theory of who may have exclusive rights to physical goods.

3Peter Birks, Unjust Enrichment, Second Edition, Part I.

4Or the contracting party has otherwise made some kind of indication of being bound. Theories of contract have often been based on anything but consent. See Randy E Barnett, A Consent Theory of Contract, Columbia Law Review (March 1986) 269.

5The author is reminded of an anecdote told to him by a colleague. Entertaining a prospective client from Africa, my colleague served her tea and coffee with a selection of biscuits. Expecting his guest to have only one or two biscuits with her drink, to my colleague’s amazement, or at least his surprise, she ate all of the biscuits. It was only after the meeting was concluded that my colleague realised that what would be taken as an indication of greed and rudeness in the UK might be a sign of politeness and courtesy in the culture of his client – that, where she came from, to be served a plate full of food and to not eat all of it would be a grave insult to one’s host. Of course no legal liability was generated in this scenario but it goes to show how the same actions can have different meanings and demonstrate different intentions in different cultures.

6At the very least we might say there is a presumption that an interpretation of objective intention is valid unless it is rebutted by evidence of differing subjective intention, although even this may not always be sufficient.

7See also Robert Murphy, Chaos Theory, pp. 27-9.

8N Stephan Kinsella, Legislation and the Discovery of Law in a Free Society, Journal of Libertarian Studies 11:2 (Summer 1995) 132-181.

9The old adage “ignorance of the law is no defence” was applicable when the law was understood to be restricted to well understood principles that were based on common morality, ignorance of which would indicate such an anti-social and anti-human character on the part of the perpetrator that an acquittal on such grounds would be unthinkable. This clearly does not apply when government writes legislation faster than a person can read and the maxim, these days, is simply touted as a motto of self-justification by the state and its enforcers.

10Practice Statement, [1966] 3 All ER 77.

11Part of the original problem and, indeed, of the dissent to the 1999 Act is a misconception that contracts are binding promises, something we shall explore in part two. See R Stevens, The Contracts (Rights of Third Parties Act 1999) (2004) 120 Law Quarterly Review 292.