Building a Libertarian World

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A difficult and perhaps insufficiently understood question concerning libertarianism is how libertarianism will be brought about in the world as we know it and, moreover, precisely what a libertarian world will look like. How can libertarians expect their theoretical understanding of their philosophy to emerge from this present world of seemingly perennial statism and how will the world be shaped once this libertarian world is accomplished? This essay will bring together a number of thoughts of this topic that have been addressed in previous essays, namely the relationship between libertarianism and wider morality, the nature and origin of law and concepts such as rights, obligations and property, and the importance of decentralisation and the relative size of state institutions, in order to try and create a unified picture of how libertarianism in theory can (or will) become libertarianism in practice.

Let us begin our examination, then, with an outline of libertarian theory and the place of libertarianism amongst wider political and moral theory. Libertarianism as a theory is concerned solely with the legitimacy of the initiation of physical force between rationally acting beings and either themselves or other physical matter of which the world is made (i.e. “resources”). Rationally acting beings are those beings who strive to attain their deliberately chosen ends through the utilisation of means, means that are scarce and can only be devoted to one individual’s end at the expense of everyone else’s. Libertarianism asks the question who may act physically in relation to a given piece of matter and who may not. It answers this question by stating that every rationally acting individual owns the physical matter that comprises his body (“self-ownership”) and all external, physical matter either of which he is the first user or of which he has received in trade voluntarily from a previous, legitimate owner (“property”). A violation of these principles – i.e. the uninvited, physical use of an individual’s person or property by another individual – is deemed to be an aggression, an unjust invasion of that which belongs to somebody else (for example, murder, assault and theft). Thus, from these core beliefs we derive the non-aggression principle to encapsulate the basic libertarian approach to all interpersonal conflicts born out of scarcity.

Therefore, libertarianism itself – to use the accepted parlance amongst libertarian scholars – is a “thin” rather than “thick” philosophy, addressing only the legitimate use of physical force. Another way of putting this is that, because everyone’s ends must be accomplished through physical actions which impact, physically, other matter in the real world, libertarianism concerns which persons may act and seek to fulfil their ends in relation to a given piece of matter, and which persons may not. Libertarianism does not, on the other hand, concern the contents of an individual’s ends or goals nor, once it is understood that an individual may act, does it have anything to do with whether or how he should act or which precise choices he should make. Libertarianism addresses neither the wisdom nor the foolishness, and neither the benefits nor the burdens that a given action may bring – merely that the choice to act in a certain way is the individual’s to make and further considerations about whether he should so act is the province of wider morality. A further way of putting this is that libertarianism deals with that which is legally permissible and may be done without response from the force of the law; it does not deal with that which is morally permissible i.e. with which behaviour is either morally accepted or morally questionable – all of which, in contrast to illegal behaviour, cannot be restrained or prevented by physical force, however odious or unpleasant. For example, I have the legal right to refuse to hold open the door for a lady; a SWAT team will not break burst in and arrest me for having refused to act in accordance with this social more. However, from a moral point of view, I have probably behaved quite rudely and in a socially unacceptable manner, meaning that such a choice was, most likely, not a good one to make. However, the choice is still mine to make and no one would have the legal right to use physical force to ensure that I hold the door open. In short libertarianism is about what I may choose to do whereas wider morality concerns what I should choose to do.

Overlooking or disregarding this important point is likely to cause a great deal of confusion. It is the mainstream view today that law and wider morality are not separate endeavours and that the law exists to enforce a positive, moral code. On the one hand the law is used to prevent us from making choices which are morally bad – past and present laws against vices such as drug and alcohol use and against various sexual preferences or adultery are a testament to that. On the other hand the law is also used to force us to act in ways which are morally good – such as the supposed charitableness, selflessness and altruism that is allegedly accomplished by the whole apparatus of the welfare state, which is funded, of course, through legally enforced tax contributions. Morally bad acts are outlawed because they are seen as bad choices to make from which bad consequences will follow and so nobody should be doing them. Morally good acts are forced because they are seen as good choices to make from which good consequences will follow and so everybody should be doing them. When a libertarian, however, then comes along and says that nobody should be legally prevented from injecting or ingesting whatever substances he wants in his body, that no one should be legally restrained from having consensual sex with whomever he wants, and that no one should be forcibly dispossessed of his lawfully earned money to be distributed to others, what he means is that people should be able to choose or to choose not to do these things – that he should have the choice to take drugs, or the choice to have consensual intercourse with a member of the same sex, or the choice to either keep or give away his own money. However, the casual observer, viewing these pronouncements through the prism of an intertwined legal and moral code, looks upon the libertarian desire to legalise acts such as drug taking as a moral endorsement of that act, and the libertarian desire to defund the welfare state as an admonishment of altruism or sacrifice while replacing it with selfishness. He overlooks or refuses to understand the fact that the libertarian is making neither a commendation nor a condemnation of these choices whatsoever – merely that the morality and wisdom of making these choices are no business of the law’s. Unfortunately, many libertarians serve to aggravate this misunderstanding by assuming that there is no further moral question concerning a particular act beyond its satisfaction of the non-aggression principle. Yes, a person should be able to, for example, say whatever words he wants on his own property without any interference from the law – but it does not follow from this fact that it is a good idea to say a particular thing at a particular time, nor does it follow that other people should not withdraw their support of you if they find what you have said objectionable. A person who takes a narcotic does not violate the non-aggression principle but it doesn’t follow from this fact that everything is okay and that there is nothing more to be said on the matter. Indeed, very bad consequences might follow for the drug taking individual and his family if he proceeds to do so and it would be ridiculous to suggest that these are irrelevant considerations. This does not mean to say, of course, that the non-aggression principle should not be primary concentration in building a just and peaceful society. Given that the violation of the non-aggression principle is so endemically legitimised by the institution that is responsible for nearly all of society’s woes – the state – it is, of course, entirely right that libertarians should persistently and consistently emphasise it. However, to view the non-aggression principle as the only worthwhile consideration would, if taken to its logical conclusion, amount to a travesty for the principle only concerns where one may act, not whether he should so act.  Shorn of all other reasons to act or not to act, those who wed themselves to the principle but to nothing else would be devoid of any impetus to make one choice over the other and would, in fact, never act at all! While it is true, therefore, that libertarians in their capacity as libertarian theorists are only concerned with the proper application of the initiation of violence in society, in their role as citizens in society they must also cultivate a positive, personal morality, a personal morality that will permit the libertarian to add value to moral debates far beyond the limits of libertarian theory – while keeping firmly within his sights that none of his views are anything to do with libertarian theory itself.

It cannot be emphasised enough how embracing or understanding the very limited scope of libertarian theory affords a tremendous degree of intellectual clarity for political and moral philosophy. Theories of interpersonal ethics concern how we, as rationally acting individuals, should behave towards each other – the choices we should make that affect our own lives and the lives of those around us. It might be a good thing for each of us to give to charity and to care for one’s elders, for example. However, if theories of interpersonal ethics concern the choices that people should make, then their starting point needs to be that an individual really does have a choice as to whether he should act one way or the other. A person behaves morally or immorally if he has moral responsibility for his actions – i.e. that what he did was born out of his own free will. He does not so behave if his action was forced or if he was otherwise acting as an automaton. This fact is frequently recognised with acts that are seen to be morally bad or evil. For example, if I am holding a knife and somebody grabs my hand and plunges the knife into the body of another person who subsequently dies, few people, if anyone, would agree that I was the murderer as opposed to the person who grabbed my hand. My action was not chosen by me; it was, rather, completely forced and out of my control and thus I do not bear moral responsibility for the ensuing stabbing. Similarly, the law recognises circumstances where an individual is placed under such a degree of duress that his moral responsibility is severely compromised if not totally eradicated. If, for example, someone holds a gun to my head and threatens to shoot me dead unless I stab another person then I am relieved of moral responsibility for the resulting injury or death, at least to a degree. This relief from moral responsibility is seldom, however, recognised with moral goods. If it is morally good for me to give some of my money to the poor then I can only be said to have behaved morally – i.e. to have done a good thing – if I have chosen that act. If, on the other hand, such an action is forced – that I am, Robin Hood-style, robbed of my money and it is then given to the poor – then I have not done anything good at all. I can neither be praised nor condemned for whatever result this action will bring because the choice was not mine – I had to give up that money regardless. It follows from this, therefore, that if giving to the poor is a good thing and is, further, the hallmark of a caring and compassionate society, it is ridiculous for this giving to take place through the forced mechanism of the welfare state. When people pay their taxes to fund the welfare state they don’t give voluntarily at all – rather, the money is forcibly taken from them. The original donors therefore did not behave in any way morally good or morally bad; indeed, strictly, they did not “act” in any way whatsoever. Because they were forced to give up their money, neither care nor compassion was ever shown on their part; in fact, it is more likely they will be extremely resentful. Moral theories that allow for the enforcement of their ends through violence are therefore not really theories of interpersonal ethics at all; rather, they are theories of how the enforcing party – i.e. usually the state’s officials and lackeys – should behave unilaterally, treating everybody else as little more than tools to be wielded towards whatever ends the specific theory so desires. That’s why all socialist and collectivist theories are completely contrary to the reality of human nature – they suppress the very real desires and choices of millions of ordinary people for the benefit of the ends sought or desired by a handful of political masters and bureaucrats. Libertarianism, however, preserves each individual as a moral agent with the ability to make the choices that he wants with the means that he lawfully owns; it forms a true foundation for wider moral theory by reminding such theories that seeking violent enforcement of their ends is no theory of moral behaviour at all, such behaviour requiring moral responsibility for one’s actions. Thus we can see the importance of the place of libertarianism in philosophy as a whole is as a thinly conceived theory concerning the legitimate use of force and violence between rational persons. It is not a complete moral philosophy but it serves as a firm basis for moral philosophy, and this important purpose would be severely impaired if libertarianism as a theory was, instead, conceived of as “thick” or demanding additional moral imperatives.

Beginning from this understanding of libertarianism in theory we can move on to discussing libertarianism in practice. How will a libertarian world be brought about and what will it look like? What kind of institutions will build and preserve this libertarian world? What is it that is preventing us from achieving a libertarian world today? What needs to be the focus of our efforts? In answering these questions we are going to set ourselves the somewhat ambitious task of attempting at least a degree of reconciliation between what are perceived as distinct “camps” within the libertarian movement. First, there are the “thin” libertarians and the “thick” libertarians mentioned just a moment ago; and second, there are the “anarchists” – those who believe that no state is justified at all – and the “minarchists” – those who believe that minimal state is justified for the prevention of aggression. What we will show is that, when it comes to the most likely and practical way that a libertarian society can be introduced, these largely theoretical differences may not be that important and that all libertarians can proceed towards one, common aim.

In beginning our task we first of all need to define precisely what a libertarian society in the real world will actually be. An uncontentious definition would be a society in which the non-aggression principle is adhered to so widely, through one way or another, that violations of it amount to little more than minor incursions and nuisances rather than endemic, perennial societal ills. Some violent invasions against the person or property of other people will always exist – there will always be, after all, criminals and those who are willing to do bad things. The important point, however, is that they do not approach the scale of systematic violence and destruction that our governments heap on us today.

If we accept this definition then there are three problems which we need to consider. The first problem is how to eradicate, from the mainstream consciousness, the legitimisation of the initiation of force or violence – in other words, how do we ensure that the non-aggression principle comes to be viewed as both true and just by almost everyone? How will all persons, regardless of their status or position, come to be subject to this same, basic prescription? The second problem, however, concerns how we will reduce actual violations of the non-aggression principle to a level far below that at which we languish today in order for a very real peace and prosperity to flourish. It would be no good if we achieved the first goal of educating everyone about the injustice of stealing and killing, for instance, yet we all happily stole and killed because the incentives and institutions required to deter such violent behaviour did not exist or, indeed, were impossible to bring about. If this was the case then libertarianism would simply be a theory without any practical application, a whimsical idea that would have no relevance to the real world. The third problem, which is the most difficult of the three to comprehend, is whether a libertarian world will be created from the top down or from the bottom up. Will it be sufficient, for example, for a small band of diehard libertarians to overthrow the existing rulers, install themselves as the supreme leaders and proceed to order everyone to adhere to the non-aggression principle? Or will a sustainable libertarian world be brought about some other way?

Happily, if we examine each of these problems in turn we will find that they point to a common way forward. Addressing the first problem of the legitimacy of force and violence in our world today, we can see that the primary vehicle for this legitimisation is, without a shadow of a doubt, the state – and the democratic state in particular. It is already acknowledged by almost everyone that individual, private citizens cannot steal, murder, thieve, etc. There is no general or widespread problem of people failing to recognise that I, as a private citizen, may not, for instance, steal from my neighbours to fund my business, nor may I use violence to get other people to do what I want with their property. I may not kill someone in the street or bomb houses because I believe there might be some threatening or nasty people inside of them. These acts are, quite rightfully, recognised as unjust and illegal. When it comes to the mechanism of the state, however, people’s attitudes are markedly different. It is, apparently, perfectly legitimate for the state to steal from its citizens in order to fund its business of welfare and warfare; it is legitimate for the state to use force to “regulate” what you do with your own person and property, even though what you may wish to do inflicts no violence or infringement against the person or property of anybody else; the state is allowed to drop bombs on houses if it believes there are nasty people it doesn’t like inside, writing off the innocents who were killed or maimed in the process as “collateral damage” (or at least the state can do this in faraway lands where its voters neither have to see nor think about it). Far from being a check on state power, democracy (the only form of government that is assumed, without argument, to be just by anyone who expects to be taken seriously) has served to increase the power of the state – and thus the extent of its violence – by providing it with a veneer of legitimacy. The only thing that can possibly be said in favour of democracy is that, once one realises that a majority will always get its way one way or another, it provides for a relatively peaceful and bloodless transition of political power from one majority to another. Today, however, democracy has been exalted to a level far removed from what it deserves for providing solely this simple benefit. Because people believe that they are “choosing” their leaders and “choosing” the policies that are implemented by casting their vote or “having their say” this, for some reason, means that it is alright for the state to go about its business of force and violence in almost any way it likes. The power of kings, emperors and those who otherwise claimed some kind of unique, divinely endowed right to rule was kept in its place by the fact that everyone else was shut out from either the use or benefit of state power; no king ever managed to create a world of paper money that could be printed and accepted as payment without limit to fund his warring ventures, nor could he build a redistributive welfare state; no king ever had an alphabet soup of departments and agencies managing your home, your family, your workplace, the products you buy, the services you use, and so on. However, because everyone in a democracy is apparently allowed to “have their say”, such a system not only allows everyone an opening to benefit or even direct the state’s immoral acts via the mechanism of government, but because such acts have been “chosen” by the “will of the people” they are transformed from provoking moral outrage to provoking moral celebration. Never mind, of course, that people do not actually have any meaningful say in a representative democracy – all they are allowed to do is vote, once every few years, between a tiny selection of carefully screened candidates who create the impression that they are bitterly divided yet agree perfectly on all of the fundamental features of the state which libertarians oppose. Only occasionally are the people allowed to come out of their corner to fight, as the British did with the recent referendum on EU membership and the Americans did with the election of Donald Trump as their President. What is important for the legitimisation of force of violence, however, is the fact that people believe that they are in control of the state. It follows, therefore, that delegitimising the state and weakening the power of the state would go a long way to delegitimising the use of force and violence everywhere.

This leads us onto our second problem which is how to minimise the actual incidence of force and violence in society. Unsurprisingly our answer points once again to the primary culprit, which is the state. As we just mentioned, a powerful driving force for the actual commission of violent and invasive acts is their perceived legitimisation under the aegis of the democratic state. After all, if it is okay to relabel theft and violence as taxation and regulation and to do these odious acts through the mechanism of the state, then obviously they are going to be done a lot more often. However, so many of the catastrophes and calamities for which the state is responsible result from the actual, physical wealth and power that many states have managed to accumulate, with that wealth and power concentrated in an ever dwindling number of specific people and institutions. As a result of this the ability for the state to expand its predatory effects has been left almost unchecked. The consolidation of state territories into unified governments has been particularly disastrous in this regard. The two most destructive conflicts in history – the two world wars – occurred after the unification of Germany and Italy, with the drain the Bismarkian welfare state inflicted on the economic prosperity of Germany leading to the drive towards autarky and the perceived need to conquer the largely agrarian lands to the East. The nuclear terror perpetuated by the Cold War was made possible only because such large and powerful states as the United States and the Soviet Union were able to fund the building of their nuclear arsenals. The United States, the only remaining superpower today, has caused havoc in Korea, Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and God knows where else simply because it can do so relatively unopposed. Smaller states with smaller tax bases and access to fewer resources simply cannot do this. Yet, ironically, because the state is still viewed as the fountain of all goodness, it is further state expansion which is called for in order to prevent war and preserve peace – as if it is all of us barbarous citizens who are causing all of the strife rather than the political leaders with their armies, navies and air forces. Proponents of such expansion fail to understand the obvious fact that if you wish to minimise war and its effects then the last thing you want to do is to make belligerents bigger and stronger as opposed to smaller and weaker. Nor do they understand that if you wish to promote trade and prosperity then so too must the state be cut down to size. The original project of the European Union was designed to unify and pacify the old warring colonial powers, creating a trading block with tariff free borders through which goods and workers could pass unhindered. We can certainly agree that the aims are broadly correct – if you wish to achieve economic progress then you need to encourage capital accumulation, which can only be done through relatively strong private property rights, minimal taxation and minimal regulation. However, the path that was taken to achieve this was to consolidate and centralise Europe’s political institutions in Brussels and to, eventually, create some kind of European super state. This is the precise opposite of what you want to do if your aim is free trade and increasing prosperity. If Europe, instead, consisted of several hundred, or even up to a thousand small territories and independent cities the size of say, Monaco, Liechtenstein or Luxembourg then the lack of each state’s ability to access both natural and human resources, except through international trade, would be reduced to a minimum; thus such states could only introduce onerous tariffs and border controls at the expense of crippling themselves. Moreover, a small state cannot increase its internal taxes and regulations to levels which are too onerous otherwise residents will simply hop across the border (which, in a small state, is likely to be only be a few miles away) leaving the heavily taxing state drained of its productive population. Thus, what keeps taxes, regulations and border tariffs minimal to non-existent is the competition between many small states so that they can attract investment, talent and resources. In turn, production of these things is encouraged and wealth creation accelerates. However, in a vast super state covering thousands of square miles and controlling an array of natural resources and a population of millions, the taxing and regulating authorities are now left relatively unchecked. No longer do they have to attract resources and talent and neither can these things leave as easily – for they are already there within the territory of the large state and crossing a border that may be thousands of miles away is markedly more difficult. It is for this reason that the EU has become one of the most heavily regulating and interfering state institutions in the world, a fact which incites farcical hilarity, if not utter despair, when you consider that there are more than 12,000 EU regulations concerning milk. If all of these regulations are necessary it’s a wonder how previous generations ever managed to enjoy the stuff at all. It is true that there may be no internal tariffs and border restrictions within the EU and yes, goods and workers can move freely between, say France and Italy. Business leaders acclaim how great this is for commerce and enterprise, yet what these business leaders overlook is that the EU itself has become a burdensome engine of internal taxation and redistribution that far outweighs any gain achieved through the abolition of border tariffs. Indeed, each member state’s contribution to the EU budget effectively amounts to a tariff anyway – the only difference is that the burden of paying it is borne by the citizens of each state as a whole rather than individual industries or businesses which ship goods to the EU. Fortunately the EU does not have any direct, taxing power over the citizens of member states, yet it has been moving to nullify tax competition between states, the very element that is so important for keeping tax rates low and for attracting investment. And let us not forget, of course, that the EU is more than happy to charge onerous tariffs on imports from outside of the bloc. Super states, and prospective super states such as the EU, are not single markets promising trade, prosperity and the best conditions for enterprise – they are, instead, single bureaucracies of heavy taxation, crippling regulation and welfare parasitism.

In his astonishingly perceptive book, The Breakup of Nations, Leopold Kohr pointed out that almost every notable achievement of the human race – great art, great literature, great culture, great technology, great philosophy, and so on – is all but irrelevant to the preservation of peace and prosperity. The only relevant factor is the size, or, rather, the relative size of states. Big states prey on their citizens and their foreign counterparts not because they think they either should or that to do so is good (although they may believe these things), but simply because they can. Great power endows one with great temptation, a temptation which political leaders nearly always cave in to. The evidence for this is difficult to dismiss. Centuries of cultural refinement marked by some of the world’s finest achievements in art, literature and music did not prevent France and Germany from each having their turn at conquering the whole of Europe; the philosophy of freedom and liberty didn’t stop the British from building an empire; the economic and technological progress of the United States has not stopped her from interfering, disastrously, all over the world. Yet the era in recent history which supposedly (but not entirely accurately) marked the nadir of man’s cultural and economic achievement – the Dark Ages – was, by comparison, relatively tranquil, as it was also populated, for much of its history, by relatively smaller, weaker states. From all of this it is clear that the breakup of states into far smaller units – what we might call political decentralisation – should be a clear aim of libertarians.

It is on this note of decentralisation that we move onto our third and final issue which is whether a libertarian world will be brought about from the “top-down” or from the “bottom-up”. Would it be enough, for example, for a defiant band of libertarians to take over the state apparatus and to enforce a libertarian legal code? What we have just said about power and corruption should make our initial answer obvious. If libertarians take over the state won’t they simply become corrupted by its power and influence? Or, more likely, if the populace whom they now govern was not similarly enamoured with libertarian values, wouldn’t the leaders cave into the pressure to use the power of the state to “act” in order to correct some kind of perceived societal ill? A comparable occurrence of this nature in recent history is the American Revolution, which is popularly portrayed as the overthrow of a tyrannous, foreign king by the oppressed but passionate American people fighting for their freedom. Yet, in reality, what occurred was that a new elite simply served to replace the power vacuum that had been left with the departure of the British. Not only were the founding fathers far from unified on the question of precisely which type of government should replace the ejected monarchy, but very quickly aspects of the new United States began to resemble those of their previous colonial masters. We know today, of course, that the Constitution of the United States has utterly failed to constrain the power of the federal government. Yet even reading the original text alone should alert a critical reader to how un-libertarian it was in the first place. It does, after all, preserve the power to tax among a myriad of other horrors in Section Eight of Article One such as declaring war, raising armies and the infamous commerce clause. Within mere years of its adoption, the very same people who were victors over the repressive British provoked the whiskey rebellion, enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts, and even the great Thomas Jefferson found it difficult to constrain himself when, as President, he signed into law and draconically enforced the Embargo Act of 1807. If libertarians simply served to replace the despots they would very soon find themselves acting as the new despots. A genuine libertarian revolution will be impossible unless the power of the state is chopped from the bottom rather than simply given a haircut at the top.

The more important point, however, is revealed when we consider what it is that institutions such as property, rights, obligations and laws – the backbone of a libertarian society – are supposed to serve and how these institutions developed historically. The mainstream point of view in this regard is hopelessly confused, wallowing in a misunderstanding of the abilities and extent of human design and ingenuity. The results of such ingenuity are, of course, all around for us to see. We can easily marvel, for example, at the achievements of humans in the fields of science and engineering, at how we have transformed barren, dead matter into great structures such as buildings and bridges, how we have harnessed the power of electricity to provide us with heat and light, and how a device as small as a microchip can process information many times faster than the human brain. Every way we look we see the results of humans striving to shape the world in the way that we wish in order to meet our needs and improve the quality of our lives. Since the advent of Cartesian rationalism in philosophy, it has seemed almost obvious that if humans can shape the resources we have around us to do what we want them to do then so too can we apply this same engineering bent to society itself and to societal institutions. In other words, that we can deliberately shape society and design its institutions to do what we want them to do. If we can construct the Empire State Building then surely we can construct laws, regulations, rights, and obligations in order to make society a better place? That is the fundamental view of statists today – that society is something there to be managed, pushed in certain directions and squeezed into certain shapes by our political masters served by an army of elite intellectuals. The laws that are enforced are to be designed and enacted through legislation in order to push, from the top down, society onto a particular economic and moral path. Society, however, exists only because individual people perceive that social co-operation is essential for meeting their needs and for vastly improving their quality of life. In contrast to this, it would be quite possible for each person to be content to live an atomistic existence, finding his own food, building his own shelter and entertaining himself devoid of all social relations and interaction with anybody else. If this was the case then society, as such, would not exist. If the population of a territory consisted of 1,000 people yet each of those people lived such an isolated existence then that is all you would have – a piece of land with 1,000 people on it; you would not, however, have a society of 1,000 people. Because, as should be obvious, such an existence would result in the starkest and most brutal impoverishment, humans have, instead, decided to come together and co-operate. Such co-operation has developed from our existence as hunter gatherers, through the Neolithic Revolution and has reached its most advance form in the division of labour – the specialisation of each individual in a particular task which serves the needs of others. It is this social co-operation which is, in and of itself, society. Because the purpose of this co-operation is to further the needs of individuals it is the case also that the institutions that are required to facilitate this co-operation appeared because they made the pursuit of our individual needs and wellbeing easier. The great societal institutions – such as the family, the law, money, and morality – were never explicitly designed or “invented” by anybody. Rather, they were the product of centuries of evolution or of what we might call a “spontaneous order”, and the precise content of their makeup was determined by what facilitated the needs of individual people. The family, for example, developed during an era in which humans were pure consumers of what the Earth had to offer rather than producers – much like animals are. The availability of resources in a society which only consumes and never produces is heavily dependent upon the height of the population. As humans could keep on breeding merrily the population quickly rose to a level where the quantity of resources was insufficient and hence everybody suffered from a reduced standard of living. The family unit developed as a response to this problem in order to make fathers bear the cost of their own children. The more children they have then the more food and shelter they would have to provide for and so this furnished a powerful incentive to keep the population relatively in check. It is from this that our current code of sexual ethics has also developed – the requirement of sexual fidelity and the moral penalisation of sex out of wedlock, for example, all stem from the fact that such acts defeated, or could potentially defeat, the object of controlling the levels of population vis-à-vis resources. Money, which today is printed and controlled entirely by the state, was never explicitly designed by anyone but, rather, arose as a product of barter, whereby one or a handful of goods (usually, except for specific situations, precious metals) became more marketable than any other and hence came to be regarded as valuable not for whatever practical use they may serve but precisely because they could be exchanged. Nobody woke up one morning and, surveying the difficulty of trading individual goods directly, decided to say “I know! Let’s invent a good that we can all trade for everything else and call it money!” No wise leader started, out of the blue, to produce money or manufacture money, nor was the precise monetary commodity in a given situation explicitly chosen by anyone. Rather, given the immense power it afforded, the minting and issuing of money was usurped at a much later date – a usurpation which, of course, was only completed in 1971 when the US dollar’s last tie to gold was severed (and which may not be finally complete until states have succeeded in issuing a common, worldwide, paper currency). Law similarly evolved over centuries, or even millennia, out of interpersonal conflicts people ran in to over resources. The source of a legal case was the fact that two people each wanted to use the same resource to meet their own ends whereas, owing to the fact of scarcity, only one could do so. In other words the precise areas in which the law was concerned were decided by whether or not people could peacefully meet their needs in a given situation. If they could not then it was their perception of a conflict that gave rise to legal rules and principles. This is very important lesson that many libertarians, let alone everyone else, are yet to understand; the precise boundaries of aggression cannot be decided from on high by a wise and powerful leader because the elements of aggression – a physical invasion of another person’s property – are all dependent upon the parties’ perception of those physical transgressions as preventing them from fulfilling their needs with the resource in question. What is aggressive behaviour and what is not cannot be based upon what a political leader thinks is a conflict between two people (as all political leaders do when they enact legislation), nor can it be based upon some precise, scientific measurement of whether one body collided with another. If I shake a bed sheet and a piece of dust travels through the air and lands on your shoulder then, even though I have initiated an action which physically impacts on your person, this is not aggressive behaviour because such an action does not interfere with your ability to use your body to meet your ends. Indeed, most likely, you wouldn’t even be aware of the speck of dust at all. If, however, I threw the bedsheet over your head and wrestled you to the ground then this would probably be regarded as assault and the law would find me liable as such. Both actions concern a physical transgression of your person or property initiated by me, but only the one which interferes with your ability to use your person and property to meet your needs as perceived by you is the aggressive action. None of this should be taken to suggest, however, that the precise content of legal rules is purely subjective, nor should legal liability follow merely from somebody’s whim. Rather, objectively defined rules are drawn from typical experiences of what is and what is not aggressive, such typical situations arising before legal adjudicators again and again. Most people do not want to be killed by another person; most people do not want their belongings taken; most people do not want to be raped. So, for example, if one person kills another then it is presumed that the deceased did not so wish to be killed and the accused must adduce evidence to the contrary if he is to avoid liability. On the other hand, most people do not perceive that a speck of dust landing on their shoulder as a result of someone shaking a bedsheet is aggressive and invasive behaviour. So anyone who turned up before the court alleging that such an incident was aggressive would most likely be told that, even if, subjectively, this speck of dust prevented him from enjoying his person or property, he alone should bear the burden of protecting himself from this unusual sensitivity, rather than forcing everyone else to tiptoe around him. What we can see as a result of this, therefore, is that the precise boundaries of aggression which are expressed in precise laws are very much determined by the customary and conventional context. This is perhaps best illustrated when determining the requirements to enter contracts. If I sit down in a restaurant in Great Britain and order from the menu then that action is sufficient to make me liable to pay for the meal as that is how the situation is understood in this society. My refusal to do so on the grounds that I had not been told explicitly that I would have to pay would be laughed out of court. On the other hand, in another society, it might be the case that you are assumed to be a guest unless the proprietor of the establishment states that you must pay for your meal. If I raise my hand at an auction I might find myself liable to pay for one of the lots; if I do it outside in the street I am merely saying hello to someone. The action is the same but whether I am placing a bid or simply making a greeting has to be judged by the context. So the same thing can not only mean different things in different societies, with different consequences following, but so too might they mean different things in the same society depending upon the precise situation. Legal adjudicators have to assess what the actions of the parties meant and what they intended through their actions according to the social, customary and conventional context in order to determine the precise limits of legal liability. Because, as we said earlier, society is emphatically not something that is managed from on high but is, rather, motivated by individuals, this is an evolving rather than a static process. Such evolution can evolve only through case law, i.e. through law made or “discovered” through actual cases involving real people in real conflicts, rather than through legislation which involves only conflicts manufactured or perceived by politicians and bureaucrats. The importance of the customary and conventional context also applies to which beings may enjoy legal rights and which may not. Libertarians are often chided for their lack of agreement over the issues of abortion and the rights of children but, strictly speaking, these issues cannot be resolved theoretically. Libertarian theory will tell you which kinds of beings enjoy rights and which types of action are aggressive; it does not, however, tell you whether a specific being enjoys rights or whether a specific action is aggressive. The questions concerning the legal rights of foetuses and of children are of this latter category – do they qualify as the kind of beings to whom rights apply, i.e. are they rationally acting beings? And, if not, at which age or ages will a foetus or child be deemed, or at least presumed, to be a rationally acting being capable of enjoying rights? Is the fact that a foetus grows inside the mother an invasion of the mother’s body or has she demonstrated some kind of consent to the foetus’s growth? None of these questions are answered by libertarian theory but, rather, they concern the application of libertarian theory according to the customary, social and conventional context. To take a deliberately extreme example in order to illustrate this, early, primitive societies ascribed natural phenomena to the will of deities, and were unable to differentiate between inanimate phenomena (such as the sun or clouds) on the one hand and conscious beings on the other. Let us suggest that, in such a society, trees are perceived to possess personalities and to have rational thoughts and feelings which could, through some way, influence the course of events (in a similar vein, the present author, as a very young child, believed that trees shaking their branches were the cause of the wind, rather than vice versa). The legal system (or other social rules acting as a precursor to a legal system) of this society would recognise each tree as a legal person endowed with rights, and that to invade the tree’s physical presence would be an unlawful aggression against the tree’s person. Today, however, due to the advances of our scientific understanding, we have sufficient reason to believe that trees are not, in fact, rational beings nor do they possess the will or ability to alter the course of events. Although “living” they are not conscious and simply occupy the sphere of natural resources which can be owned by actual rational beings.

To re-emphasise, the important point about all of this is that, given that both the nature and the content of the elements that preserve societal order – such as rights, obligations, property – are determined by the needs of individual people, it follows that these elements can be neither determined nor shaped by groups of leaders or intellectuals acting from on high – in other words, by centralised, state institutions. Libertarians and free-market economists wax lyrical about how the state cannot hope to run and control specific industries productively in order to meet the needs of individual people and how the state has no rational method of directing resources in ways that best meet the needs of those people. Rather, such industries always end up succumbing to the priorities of the political leaders, the bureaucrats and the employees. Exactly the same is true of the institutions that concern societal governance. The entire state apparatus of legislatures, courts, bureaucracies, and their supporting police and military forces are designed not to give effect to and to prioritise the needs of individual people but, rather, to promote, enhance and push forward the visions of society held by liberal elites – visions of collectivism, equality, uniformity, and multiculturalism that destroy private, voluntary allegiances to localised institutions such as families, communities, and places of worship to direct it towards the glorification of the ever expanding state. The move towards greater state consolidation through supranational outfits such as the United Nations, the European Union, the IMF and so on is designed to concentrate decision making authority in an ever dwindling number of colossal institutions, centralising power and control in the handful of powerful oligarchs. A genuine libertarian society – a society distinguished by freedom for the individual – will therefore only come about through the destruction or dismemberment of the institutions which are diametrically opposed to this freedom. In practice this will mean halting and reversing the current trend towards state consolidation and inter-state co-operation, and seeking the breakup of individual states into as smaller territories as possible. This will scatter decision-making authority away from the centre and towards the individual as close as possible by achieving the increasing localisation of institutions which bear the responsibility for preserving order and governance.

The way forward for libertarians to bring about a libertarian world is therefore relatively clear – we must seek, emphatically, the de-legitimisation the state, the dilution of the power of the state, and the reduction of the size and territorial reach of each state. If, however, we needed to select just one of these elements – one call to action that could be regarded as the libertarian rallying cry – it appears that the third aim of reducing the size of each state is likely to have the greatest impact. Not only is it from this achievement that the other two are likely to follow but it is also the one which, at least after 2016, gives the appearance of being most likely to succeed and of being brought about in the right way from the bottom up rather from the top down. Ethno-nationalism and secessionism has returned to our world as a reaction against the forced centralisation of state institutions and metastasising of supra state bureaucracies; open borders, forced integration and globally managed trade are giving way to each state and smaller territories determining their own policies in this regard. Although our faith in the political process – the game that the statists want us to play – should be cautious, we have to hope that events such as the “Brexit” vote and the election of Donald Trump indicate only the beginning of this rebellion from the masses, a rebellion against the globalising, centralising and bureaucratising forces that will far eclipse the significance of those two events alone.

Moreover, this aim of seeking to reduce the territorial size of states and state institutions achieves also a degree of reconciliation between the distinct camps within the libertarian community we described earlier – between “thin” libertarians and “thick” libertarians on the one hand, and between “minarchists” and “anarchists” on the other. For libertarian “thickests”, we are fully conceding  that the move towards decentralisation and to smaller state territories to likely to be dependent upon the willingness of people to place their trust in more localised, informal, and voluntary institutions such as a common culture, a common language, common customs, a common morality and a common (or a common absence of) religion. It is these alternative elements which are required to shift people’s reliance away from the formal apparatus of the state for their feeling of identity, security and community, and also to generate a feeling of empathy and friendliness within each locale which is needed to grease the wheels of social co-operation. It is precisely because these common elements are the antithesis of statism and state growth that all socialising theorists and politicians have sought to denigrate and destroy them – as they are largely trying to do now through mass migration and the fostering of welfare dependency. By eradicating cultural, community, conventional, customary identities (as well as traditional morality) through its egalitarian, all-inclusive, non-discriminatory, socialising programmes, the state simply sows distrust, hatred, and envy which makes easier its task of theft, violence, and welfare statism. We as libertarians, therefore, should regard the promotion of these common elements and informal institutions as necessary for bringing about a libertarian world. For libertarian “thinnests”, however, we are also acknowledging that we, as libertarians qua libertarians, need not promote a particular culture, a particular language, particular customs, or a particular moral code. It is true that certain cultures, customs and moral codes may be more conducive to sustaining the non-aggression principle than others (and, as I have argued elsewhere, the requirement of non-aggression is, in and of itself, likely to promote and emphasise certain, broadly conceived values). However, it is not our job to determine from on high what these customs and cultures might be and to enforce them upon everyone else. Our focus, rather, is on breaking up the giant, behemoth states so that people can find their own way, building their own communities based upon their own values. Without the power of vast states to enforce and support them, the flourishing of these individual communities will undoubtedly depend upon them being able to adopt values which promote proper order, governance and social wellbeing. However, much of this is largely achieved by the fact of cultural harmony in the first place – that everyone in a community largely agrees on the same basic values and that everyone’s behaviour is broadly acceptable to everyone else. In short, that all members of a given society are basically kindred spirits. Determining precisely what these values will be is, for libertarians, a secondary task at best. Moving on to minarchists and anarchists, if we break up states into relatively smaller sizes then minarchists can be satisfied that each territory still has some official institutions that are responsible for law and order; anarchists, however, will be relieved to know that because such decentralisation and deconsolidation increases the relative power of the individual vis-à-vis the state then the practical distinction between the state as a compulsory association on the one hand and as a voluntary association on the other becomes much less clear. Indeed, at some degree it will be completely abolished. At the extreme end, a small commune on a few acres of land comprising merely tens of people will be heavily reliant upon gaining the continual trust and enthusiasm of each of those people if the commune is to survive. However, a vast commune such as the former Soviet Union can treat each individual person however it likes – stealing from them, forcing them to do what it wants, and, of course, murdering them. Moreover, the ability of a small state to launch any foreign wars – which, in the long run, is the source of the loss of most of our freedoms – is vastly reduced, if not eradicated.

This, then, should be the goal of all libertarians, lovers of freedom, and those who are passionate about free enterprise and free association – breaking up the state into as smaller territories as possible and rendering state power and influence as inert as possible. We can hold some hope that this may be the way in which the tide is turning and that we can finally bring to a close this chapter in human history that has been marked by socialisation, collectivism, statism, bureaucratism and endlessly destructive warfare built on a cushion of false prophets, false values, false money, and a false prosperity.


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“Ending Useless Lives” – A Critique of Matthew Parris

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The UK Government’s Assisted Dying Bill, which was defeated in the House of Commons in September of this year, was, rightly, a controversial one. The question of assisted suicide, in order to prevent the onset of pain or the so-called “loss of dignity” from a degenerative disease or old age, is disputed amongst libertarians too, with some asserting that if you own your body and your life you should be able to do whatever you want with it, whereas others claim that anything that seeks the destruction or termination of one’s life is antithetical to freedom.

We are not, of course, hoping to resolve this kind of debate here. Rather, the focus of this essay is an interesting article that appeared recently in The Spectator authored by Matthew Parris entitled “Some day soon we’ll all accept that useless lives should be ended” and subtitled “If the law does not lead, it will follow — at root the reason is Darwinian”. Parris states forthrightly what he believes will be a result of any assisted dying law, a result that most people do not wish to countenance – that, one day, we will encourage and/or require people to end their lives. Unwittingly, however, Parris unveils not the dangers of any assisting dying bill at all. Rather, it is the dangers of the culture of statism in which such a law would be enacted, a culture of government permissibility, prohibition and encouragement which has seeped into our psyche that rejects any difference between law and positive morality.

The argument (deployed by opponents of assisted dying) is that licensing assisted dying is to smile upon the practice. The legal change would act as a cultural signal that society now approves. This would in time lead to pressure on those who might not otherwise have contemplated ending their lives, to hasten their own demise — so as ‘not to be a burden’ on others. One day (say the faith squad) it could even become the norm.

I am sure they’re right. We who may argue for ‘permissive’ legislation must have the intellectual honesty to admit that the ending of a legal prohibition does act as a social signal. In vain do we protest that ‘nobody is forcing’ upon anybody else (say) same-sex marriage, or the cashing in of pension pots, or a quickie divorce, or the possession of marijuana. Indeed not. Nobody is forcing these delights upon others, but humans are social animals and one of the ways a society signals its attitudes is by criminalising behaviour it thinks very harmful, and decriminalising behaviour towards which its attitude has softened. [Emphasis added]

It is clear from this that Parris views government laws and the will of “society” as harmonious – that government restricts what “society” does not want and permits what “society” does want. There is, therefore, in Parris’s view a union between government and people, that we are all one. It is clear also that Parris views “government” and “society” as primacies – any rights and freedoms we enjoy exist because society and government have been kind enough to pass “permissive” legislation so that we can enjoy them. “Society”, however, is not some mysterious entity with its own cognitive ability and even if it was there is no reason for the government to be in step with anything “society” decides. The prevailing attitudes, opinions and points of view on certain moral subjects originate in the minds of individuals in disagreement with the points of view of other individuals. After all, if everyone was in agreement the alleged immoral act would never occur and hence laws against it would be pointless. Never does Parris consider that the law is simply being used by one set of persons to curtail the freedom of others. Never does it occur to him that the law’s proper scope is to simply prevent invasive violence between individuals and not to confer any moral propriety on anything. Rights and freedoms originate with individual people and do not require the government to permit them. They require a total absence of government, not any piece of government paper with a Royal assent or presidential signature in order to bring them about.

The stoning to death of women taken in adultery under sharia law is undoubtedly the signal of a cultural attitude towards adultery. Were you to advocate the abolition of this punishment, Islamic moral conservatives would be right to warn that the move would both indicate and encourage a softening of public moral disapproval of female adultery. Likewise, the progressive removal of legal restraints on homosexuality has been both consequence and cause of an increasingly sympathetic attitude towards gays. It is futile to deny this

Assisted dying is not a novel desire, not a strange new way of thinking. As a moral impulse, the idea that one might hasten one’s end because one gained no pleasure from living and one had become a burden on friends, family and the state has been with us since the dawn of man. You will find it in literature right down the ages. In your own lifetime you will have heard it expressed by others of your acquaintance. The impulse, though, has usually been discouraged — resisted as an unworthy attitude to life — and this cultural disapproval is reflected in law.

To alter the law in a permissive way would therefore be pushing (as it were) at an open door: legitimising a moral argument that has always been present (or latent) among humans. I would have every expectation that, given the extra push, the habit would grow.

All of this would be true only if one accepts the view that law either is or should be, by its presence or absence, a promoter of positive morality. As libertarians we reject this view. Perhaps stoning adulterous women and criminalising homosexual behaviour was rejected not to signal any cultural approval but merely because what people do to each other in their own bedrooms is no business of the state nor of anyone else? Legalising them simply means that legitimised violence cannot be used to prevent them by people who have no business interfering in the lives of others. There is no reason to suppose that legalisation, as well as having been a consequence of relaxed social attitudes towards certain acts, should be regarded as a continuing cause of this tolerance. Everyone is still free to disapprove of such acts and to disassociate themselves from them if they so wish. Nor is there any reason why legalisation should transform simple permissiveness into encouragement or promotion. Adultery may be legal today but it is not culturally acceptable to cheat on one’s partner, and such acts are met with indignation, disapproval and rebuke. Where there has, on the other hand, been a continuing social relaxation to acts such as homosexual behaviour it is because a greater exposure to these acts that legalisation permits has caused people to realise that such acts are probably not as horrific as they might have once thought from when all they knew about them was disseminated from the propaganda of the government and moral zealots. If, on the other hand, murder was to be legalised it is likely that such exposure would cause people to still regard this as horrific and abominable. Legalisation is not, therefore, necessarily a direct cause of any social attitude towards anything.

And so it must — indeed, in the end, will: and if it does not lead, the law will follow. At root the reason is Darwinian. Tribes that handicap themselves will not prosper. As medical science advances, the cost of prolonging human life way past human usefulness will impose an ever heavier burden on the community for an ever longer proportion of its members’ lives. Already we are keeping people alive in a near-vegetative state. The human and financial resources necessary will mean that an ever greater weight will fall upon the shoulders of the diminishing proportion of the population still productive. Like socialist economics, this will place a handicap on our tribe. Already the cost of medical provision in Britain eats into our economic competitiveness against less socially generous nations.

This does not mean an end to social generosity. It does not mean an end to economically unproductive state spending. These are social goods that we value for non-economic reasons, and should. But the value we place on them is not potentially infinite. They have their price. Life itself has its price. As costs rise, there will be a point at which our culture (and any culture) will begin to call for a restraining hand. I believe that when it comes to the cost of keeping very enfeebled people alive when life has become wretched for them, we’re close to that point.

Parris seems to have forgotten that “tribes” are only handicapped because they existed in a pre-capitalist era where they had to compete with either each other or with other tribes for a finite number of resources. Capitalist economies, however, allow every person to take their place in the division of labour and all are better off from the resulting manifold increase in productivity. More alarmingly, however, Parris seems to think that all values and ends are collectively held and desired. What is “useful” as well as the “costs” and “prices” of attaining these ends are all decided by the “culture” or by “society”. It is absolutely true that all ends have their price but the only reason these ends are priced by “society” is because the government has taken upon itself to socialise welfare and medical care. People only become a burden to everyone else because they are forced to pay for the sustenance of other people’s lives through the conduit of the state which cannot and will not ever do so in the most cost effective and sustainable way. Indeed, it is government that creates the problem of hordes of sick and dying individuals by encouraging demand through the provision healthcare and welfare that is either free or vastly reduced in cost at the point of need.

Parris refers to “socialist economics” as harming “the tribe” yet he doesn’t seem to realise that the tribal mentality that he adopts is precisely a symptom of socialisation and collectivism. Socialist economics doesn’t harm “the tribe”, which in Parris’s case seems to mean his country the UK, a country that must, for some reason Parris does not explain, remain “economically competitive” with other countries. Rather, socialist economics creates tribes in the first place, with the tribal leaders – the government, the heads of planning, etc. – deciding what is important ahead of everyone else. The value of “economic competitiveness” ahead of other ends would be valued by them, the leaders, and forced upon everyone else, with the “useless lives” sacrificed for that end. Parris makes a mistake typical of collectivist thinking which is to regard society, or man’s propensity to be a “social animal”, as requiring each human to value the same ends or to work towards the same goals. This is not true. Society exists because humans realise that they can pursue their own ends (that differ from everyone else’s ends) peacefully and more productively through the division of labour and voluntary trade. The beauty of this system lies in the fact that everyone can coexist peacefully and harmoniously while pursuing their own material, self-interest (and indeed can accomplish their individual goals to a much greater extent). It is utterly false to view society as a vast machine in which individual people comprise nothing more than metaphorical cogs and pistons, all fitting together and moving along to produce the same output. If, therefore, socialisation was ended, how much should be spent on medical care and on other so-called “economically unproductive” ends would be a matter for each individual person with their own individual means, or with the voluntary assistance of other people. They would willingly sacrifice their individual “economic competitiveness” and direct resources to providing for their care in old age at a point that was desirable to them without forcibly burdening everyone else.

I don’t even say we should look more benignly upon the termination of life when life is fruitless. I say we will. We may not be aware that our moral attitudes are being driven by the Darwinian struggle for survival, but in part they will be. And just as we feel ourselves looking more sympathetically at those who wish to end it all, so we shall be (unconsciously) looking at ourselves in the same way. The stigma will fade, and in its place will come a new description of selfishness, according to which it may be thought selfish of some individuals (including potentially ourselves) to want to carry on.

We admire Captain Oates for walking out of his tent and into his death when he judged his enfeeblement was threatening his colleagues’ chances of survival. That is an extreme case, but it illustrates a moral impulse that I expect to grow — and for the same reasons as it occurred to Oates: the good of our fellow men.

I do not therefore need to campaign for assisted dying. I do not need (and wouldn’t want) to persuade anybody that the time has come for them to end their lives. I don’t need to shout from the rooftops that suicide can be a fine and noble thing, or rail against the ever growing cost of medical care in the final, prolonged phase of people’s lives. My opinions and my voice are incidental. This is a social impulse which will grow, nourished by forces larger than all of us. I don’t exhort. I predict.

In these closing paragraphs Parris makes clear that he is not advocating the ending of life at some point that it is deemed socially useless. Rather, he makes it clear that it is an inevitable result of a Darwinian struggle for survival. This case may be probable, or even certain, under current conditions. The problem, however, is that Parris’s analysis once again misses the elephant in the room. Captain Oates only walked out of his tent because the resources available to him and his “fellow men” were finite – his “enfeeblement” threatened the survival of his colleagues because they lacked the ability to produce more resources. Government socialisation of welfare and medical resources replicates the predicament of Captain Oates across society as a whole, stifling production, and increasing demand of what becomes a dwindling supply of resources at ever spiralling costs. Moreover, statism and socialisation entrenches in our psyche the “common good”, the willingness to sacrifice the individual to upon the altar of the collective, a willingness which has only become necessary precisely as a result of the ineptitude of collectivism. So although we may have some, limited agreement with Parris’s “prediction” we can, as libertarians, respond emphatically that none of it is necessary if one simply puts an end to the mantle of the state. Had Parris abandoned his collectivist mind set he might have realised this.

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Anarchism and Law

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In our recent series concerning libertarian law and legal systems, we explained briefly how legislation is ultimately incompatible with a free society and that the finding of laws would be a decentralised, heterogeneous process. This essay will attempt to elaborate on how this procedure might work in a purely anarchical society – one with no compulsory, centralised authority of ultimate decision-making power – and how law will, in spite of (or perhaps because of) this fact cohere into a harmonious system.

As we have stressed countless times before, law emerges only because individual humans perceive conflicts that arise from interpersonal scarcity; we each wish to devote the means available for our disposal to our different, individual ends. If A wants to eat a loaf of bread then B cannot do so at the same time. Laws therefore arise to determine who has the right to own and, thus, to eat the bread. Where there is no conflict between two individuals then there is no need for law as it would simply serve no purpose.

The genesis of law, therefore, is a conflict over a scarce good between two individuals. For example, A alleges that B has aggressed against his (A’s) property; B might retort that the property is rightfully his and that A is the true aggressor for withholding it from him. Laws arise to determine who has the just title to the disputed property. But where would these laws come from? It is unlikely that A and B can unilaterally come to their own determinations of precisely which outcome is just. Aside from the fact that they are both biased parties and will seek to mould the law according to the outcome that they each desire, laws are intended to be publically acknowledgeable standards of conduct. In other words, the outcome of the case matters not only for A and B; everyone else in the world also needs to know who is the rightful owner of the disputed property so that they too may avoid or otherwise resolve any potential conflicts that they may have over that property. In short, everyone needs to know who owns what and who may lawfully do what with which goods. A and B are merely individuals and otherwise have no public reputation for dispensing and pronouncing the ownership structure that is just. A and B may unilaterally declare what they believe be to be the just position (and they may be correct) but why should anyone listen to them? Why would their own pronouncements afford them any moral protection at all from future aggressors?

Rather, what is likely is that each party will seek a just outcome through established and trusted professional bodies that have earned a reputation for dispensing justice and resolving conflicts. These bodies are privately owned and funded and must satisfy the “consumers” of justice that they will resolve cases fairly and impartially, otherwise they will lose custom to those providers that will. They are not compulsorily funded monopolies such as state-provided law courts and they must persuade their customers that their dispensation of justice is adequate.

Whether the processes followed by such private, justice dispensing bodies (hereafter “private courts”) will be adversarial, inquisitive or more closely related to some kind of arbitrational procedure cannot be said for certain; that is for the marketplace to determine, just as the marketplace will determine the structure and procedures of food and beverage manufacturers. There is, however, an arguable case for stating that the process will be adversarial much like law courts in common law systems, as we shall see shortly.

What will happen then once there is an allegation of aggression by one party against another? Let us say that A believes that B has committed an act of aggression against him. B may either deny this, he may dispute the facts, or he may believe that A is the true aggressor – whichever way they cannot resolve their dispute amicably and with agreement. What will A do in order to appeal for justice? In the first place he will seek out a private law court that he believes, from past decision-making, will most likely award him the outcome that he desires (all else being equal). A will bring an action against B in this private law court – let us call it L1 – and will furnish his case to that body. B, however, while likely being notified of the suit against him, has no obligation to attend the trial by L1. L1 is a private body like any other and has neither power of compulsion nor power of subpoena over anyone. B therefore has three options. First, he can either ignore the lawsuit and have nothing to do with it; this might seem risky but he has to judge the value of defending himself from A’s allegations against that of other activities to which he could devote his time and money. Indeed he might believe that A’s case is either frivolous or an outcome in his (B’s) favour so certain that there is no point in wasting any expense. Secondly, he might choose to defend himself against the suit in court L1. Thirdly he may disregard the suit in court L1 and proceed to bring a defensive action in another body – court L2. After all, if the potential outcome of the lawsuit poses a threat to B then B too will be eager to find a reputable law dispensing body that is mostly likely to find in his favour and not in A’s. If he believes that this likelihood is greater in court L2 than in court L1 then he will opt for court L2 and leave A to prosecute his case in court L1. It is because of these options, arising out of the fact that the private court system will never be able to compel any person, whether plaintiff, defendant or third party, to appear as a witness or to adduce evidence, and that they will have to rule solely on the evidence that is presented to it voluntarily, that the whole private court procedure is likely to be adversarial in nature. The court has no powers of inquisition or detection and is wholly reliant upon that which is provided to them by the parties. The parties may, of course, prior to the suit have hired their own private detective agencies to investigate and produce evidence that aids their cause and this may involve the questioning of and adducing of evidence by witnesses. The courts, eager to preserve their standards of justice, will develop rules as to that which constitutes acceptable evidence and private detective agencies will need to follow these should they wish to remain in business1. Furthermore, because of the need to be seen to be making an impartial decision, it is not likely that the court itself can get involved in fact finding missions and the direct handling of critical evidence. Rather, it is ultimately up to the parties to bring their cases to the court and to present them and for the court to rule impartially as a totally uninvolved third party.

How, then, will the courts reach a decision? If a case is prosecuted in court L1 then the court first of all needs to come to a settled understanding of what the facts of a certain case are. Facts are often disputed in cases and precisely what happened may be a painstaking and drawn out process. Once the facts are agreed, however, the more interesting question is how will the court apply the law to the case? And from where does this law come?

The overwhelming concern for L1 is that it rules in such a way as to treat like cases as alike – in other words, thefts are always dealt with in the same way; murders in their own way; assaults in theirs; and so on. In other words the same facts always lead to the same legal result in order to create a high degree of certainty of outcome. Law is, of course, meant to be a guide to avoiding and otherwise resolving conflicts and those bodies that rule in such a way as to confuse or distort the certainty necessary in order to accomplish this will simply lose custom. The task for the court therefore is try to compare and contrast the facts in the current case with those in past decisions – either sustaining the points of law in past cases that are in harmony with the facts of the current case on the one hand, or distinguishing those cases where the facts are different and the legal points do not apply to the current case on the other.

Where the case simply concerns a dispute of facts rather than the applicable law – i.e. the question to be determined is precisely which acts A and B carried out and the lawfulness of those same acts is not disputed – the court has to make a judgment along evidential lines to the satisfaction of the required standard of proof. Where the facts are agreed, however, and it is the question of law that is unresolved – i.e. whether A’s or B’s acts were unlawful – then the task for the court is much more difficult. Resolving these so-called “hard cases” at the individual court level is not so much our concern here, although we may venture to say that where there is no clear precedent the court is likely to reason an outcome that best adheres to the principles of past cases which will, in a libertarian society, be underpinned by libertarian society. We can also venture to suggest that a court is likely to be as cautious and as precise as possible when “discovering” law to apply to what appears to be a novel situation in order to avoid the appearance of outlandishness and to be sure to not inadvertently confuse or bring into question existing, well established principle, a limitation that has often escaped our statist legal systems. Rather, the more important aspect for us is how such “new” law will come to either be embraced or rejected by the legal system as a whole. This aspect turns squarely on how the decision is respected by the parties to the case and by subsequent persons and bodies that must deal with that case.

In the first place, if the trial is taking place in only a single private court – court L1 – that court’s judgment will be the only one in existence. We must add at this point that neither the court nor anyone else has the absolute right to enforce that judgment. Rather, remedial actions intended to resolve the conflict in harmony with the judgment now carry a degree of demonstrable moral weight. It is assessing the strength of this moral weight that is the first indicator of whether the judgment forms good law. Let us examine how this might unfold.

If the court decides in favour of the plaintiff (A) and against the defendant (B), B has a number of options. He can recognise the validity of the judgment and voluntarily furnish an appropriate remedy to the plaintiff. Such an act would be the first indicator of the soundness of the judgment. If, on the other hand, B rejects the decision or is otherwise uncooperative the task of enforcing a remedy may fall to a private recovery agency hired by A. Such an agency would necessarily be using force in order to extract a remedy (say, compensation) from B to make good the loss to A. This agency will want to make absolutely sure that the judgment in court L1 upon which it is basing its action is valid law in order to avoid the possibility of B later bringing a suit against the agency. In other words, the agency needs the weight of the judgment to prove that its remedial actions are a response to the genuine aggression of B and are not themselves new acts of aggression against an innocent party. If the recovery agency accepts the judgment and proceeds to enforce a remedy out of B this further lends weight to the judgment’s validity2. Before or even after that happens, however, B could bring a suit in an alternative court (L2) if he disputes the judgment of L1 (or may already have done so if he anticipated that L1’s judgment would not be favourable, as we suggested above). L2 will now examine the evidence and make a second judgment. If L2 rules the same way as L1 and finds in favour of A then this, again, adds a tremendous degree of weight of L1’s original decision and it is unlikely that any private recovery agency would hesitate to act as a result of not one but two judgments from established, reputable bodies against B. On the other hand court L2 might find in favour of B and against A. In this instance we now have the quandary of two alternative decisions emanating from different courts. What on earth will be the outcome of such a situation? It is likely that the two courts, faced now with the reality of uncertainty in their jurisprudence as to the outcome of a particular type of case, will be eager to resolve this difference of opinion in order to ensure that they will be able to cater for clients facing similar circumstances in the future and thus earn their custom – not to mention to clear up once and for all the problem for the specific plaintiffs before them. Court L1 might review the case presented in court L2 and decide to change its opinion in light of the new judgment, acknowledging that its original decision was incorrect and that henceforth the legal principles outlined by the trial in court L2 will form part of its jurisprudence. This is especially likely if L2 benefitted from evidence or testimony that was unavailable to court L1. On the other hand, should the difference of opinion not be resolved, L1 and L2 might themselves appeal to a third court – court L3 – in order to deliver a third and what is likely to be a final judgment. The two courts, eager to preserve their decision-making reputation, will be keen to demonstrate that each of their decisions was the correct one and will present their cases before L3 accordingly. If L3 rules in favour of A, the judgment of L1 is vindicated and L2 will mostly likely incorporate L3’s decision into its jurisprudence, overruling its own. If, on the other hand, L3 rules in favour of B, then it is L1’s decision that must be discarded. Courts that are serially victorious on appeal cases may have their reputation as justice-dispensing bodies enhanced whereas those who do not may have to work harder in the future to restore their own reputation. For the parties to the immediate case, however, one of them will now have two judgments in his/her favour and the other will only have one. While it is theoretically possible for parties to go on litigating ad infinitum, not only do we have to remember that the parties themselves will have to fork out the costs for these endless cases but that also further or alternative courts may simply refuse to hear the case, taking the reasonable view that two similar judgments by different reputable bodies makes good law and there is no need to go to the time and expense of prosecuting the same case again when there are other customers who are in need of justice dispensing services. Doubtless a private recovery agency will accept the weight of two judgments as authority to enforce a legal remedy from the losing party, should the latter not comply voluntarily. The only likely solution for the losing party is to adduce new evidence that the previous three courts were not able to benefit from and only then could the case be tried a fourth or fifth time. While it is also possible that one or more of the decisions would be completely wayward it is likely that the discipline of the marketplace will ensure that such instances are kept to a minimum.

Finally, another possibility is that court L2 might rule in favour of the same party as court L1 but on different legal grounds from that of court L1. While this will resolve the case for the immediate parties it is likely that L1 and L2 will privately bring a suit in L3 in order to resolve the outstanding question of law and remove any uncertainty from their jurisprudence. Of course, it may not be possible to settle all points absolutely in the immediate case and further cases may illuminate other circumstances or possibilities that bring past judgments into question. As we noted in our series of libertarian law and legal systems, law is determined not only by libertarian principle but by custom, convention and economic expedience. Although libertarian principle remains as a constant bedrock, these other aspects are likely to change as time unfolds and so it is entirely possible – nay, likely – that past discoveries of law will come to be replaced by new ones to reflect the wider societal change. Indeed as society changes so too does the precise nature of conflicts that arise – old situations disappear and new ones arise. Law that was applicable to the former may no longer be suitable for the latter. The law of a sparsely populated agrarian society, for example, will most likely have to deal with problems such as straying cattle and farm workers’ contracts whereas a densely populated urban society would need law to address issues such as noise, light pollution, boundaries, and also building covenants, rights of way and restrictions to a much greater degree. The precise legal rules that are determined for one society may not be appropriate for another and hence law will change over time as society changes.

Conclusion

This is basic outline of how law is likely to be discovered through prosecuting independent cases in an anarchist legal order populated only by private justice dispensing agencies. Crucially what we can see is that even though law discovery and decision making is heterogenous and takes place in different times and venues, in its entirety it coheres into a single body of jurisprudence that all courts will apply in future cases. What we see then is that a coherent system of law, in much the same such as money, turns out to be one of those institutions that exists and flourishes as a result of human purpose but not of human design. In just the same way as no one individual invented and introduced money, so too there is no one person determining and scribing the law. Just as no one individual will is needed to determine the price of a good in order to ensure its rationing and distribution to the most urgently desired ends, neither is there a single will pronouncing the just outcome of cases. And yet, just like money and market prices, law serves one of the most vital purposes of human interaction – the dispensation of justice and the resolution of conflicts – without any compulsory, monopolistic and centralised authority.

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1Such detective work may also be carried out by an insurer in cases where the aggrieved party is insured against the risk of aggression. Indeed some cases might ultimately prove to be a contest between the insurers of the parties rather than the parties themselves.

2The recovery agency is likely, of course, to outline the prerequisites that a plaintiff must possess before it will go ahead with a recovery. The judgment of a reputable and impartial third party is likely to be one of them.

 

Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Five – Property Rights, Trusts, Unjust Enrichment and Other Considerations

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In this final part of our survey of libertarian law and legal systems, we will cover some other areas of legal liability and some miscellaneous considerations before being in the position of sketching a final map of libertarian law.

The Standard and Burden of Proof

In contemporary legal systems the requisite standard of proof differs depending upon the type of action. The imposition of criminal sanction requires proof to be established beyond a reasonable doubt whereas civil liability requires the same to be established only by the balance of probabilities. The reason for this, presumably, is that criminal sanction is viewed as being a greater incursion of one’s liberty than civil remedies such as furnishing compensation. Not only could one be locked up in prison but one is usually lumbered with a criminal record so that it is impossible to disassociate oneself from the illegal act for at least a period of time. Furthermore, the traditional replacement of the victim by the state in the prosecutorial process of criminal trials is, no doubt, deemed to require stricter due process to protect the individual from persecution by the government.

Much of this is irrelevant from a libertarian point of view. Although we have not discussed in detail the different remedies that flow from criminal liability on the one hand and civil liability on the other, the enforcement of all laws in a libertarian society is an incursion against an individual’s liberty. Taking someone’s money in order to furnish compensation for a tort is as much an invasion of that individual’s person and property as locking him away for a crime. Low standards of proof would result in legal remedies themselves becoming de facto breaches of the non-aggression principle. Therefore, in order to legitimatise the proposed legal remedy it is likely that only the strictest standards of proof will be accepted by a libertarian legal system – even for tortious as opposed to criminal liability. In other words, the fact of physical invasion, the extent of the aggression and the corresponding intent of the defendant must all be established beyond a reasonable doubt, or some equivalent that the libertarian courts devise.

The initial burden of proof, properly, rests on the plaintiff and not upon the defendant, just as it does in our contemporary legal systems. It is up to the plaintiff to establish a prima facie case by proving the presence of aggressive behaviour – rather than for the defendant to establish the more difficult proof of its absence. It is the plaintiff who is alleging the existence of a conflict arising from scarcity; the defendant, for all he knows, may be just going about his daily life unaware of it. It is therefore up to the plaintiff to demonstrate the substance of that conflict. Although the old adage “innocent until proven guilty” is of greater relevance when one is faced with the imposition of legal liability by the state, it applies equally in a libertarian world. The alternative, where the plaintiff could pursue a case without having to bear any burden of proving his case and thus gain “compensation” merely on his say so would allow the pursuit and sustenance of all manner of frivolous lawsuits, transforming the law from a bulwark of justice into a vehicle for wealth redistribution. Upon the establishment of a prima facie case by the plaintiff the burden may shift to the defendant and it is then up to the latter to furnish defences or mitigating circumstances in order to either reduce his liability or absolve him completely.

Vicarious Liability

A rule that libertarian courts will almost certainly impose is that the liability should be of the true aggressor only and that any form of “vicarious liability” is unwarranted. This consideration normally arises when employees of an employer carry out an invasive act during their working day. For example, a workman who knocks a tool off of scaffolding striking a pedestrian below; or a lorry driver who runs over an old lady. Faced with a lone plaintiff who has borne an enormous loss the urge to make “the deep pockets” pay has often proved irresistible to courts. Holding employers vicariously liable for the acts of their employees, or “inflating” the terms of insurance contracts to make the insurer cough up, often ensures a greater chance of recovery for the victim rather than pursuing the employee or individual defendant who, alone, may possess few or no assets worthy of furnishing compensation.

There will be occasions when employers will be liable for their operations when those operations result in a tort; for example when employees are only following a procedure specified by their employer and the employee did not know any better – in other words, in cases where the employee is acting as agent for the employer. Employers are likely to lay down specific procedures and safety guidelines for their employees, the breach of which will demonstrate conclusively that the employee was at fault, although the greater hope of the employer will be to avoid any accident in the first place; a tortious situation may not generate any liability for the employer but it may nevertheless result in embarrassment and brand impairment when one’s company name is involved. Employers are also likely to specify in the contract of employment the situations in which he will be liable and those in which the employee will be liable so that the employee is highly aware of the situations in which he is operating as an agent for his employer and when he is operating as an individual. Generally, however, what will make the difference is where there is an operative intervening act of will by the employee that causes the aggressive act – an intervening act that diverts him from the normal course of employment and is a fresh act not commanded by his employer. If there is such an intervention by the employee then he is liable. A workman who drives carelessly in his employer’s van between jobs and strikes a pedestrian would be liable, alone, for that invasive act. It was he whose will directed the van into the path of the pedestrian. Simply because he was acting during his working day and with his employer’s property does not invoke any liability on the part of the employer. Applying a reductio ad absurdum to the contrary, would we permit an employee to pursue a criminal rampage and then throw the employer in jail simply because the employee was wearing his work clothes? If not then neither should we hold employers responsible for the less culpable acts of their employees. On the other hand, if the van had faulty brakes because the employer had chosen not to service the van, then the employer would be liable for any accident caused by this fact.

Personal Rights and Property Rights and Trusts

Roman Law made a distinction between the types of right or action available to a plaintiff – the rights in personam and rights in rem. This has survived into modern English law as being personal rights on the one hand and proprietary rights on the other. A personal right exists when an individual is owed a right by a specific person – i.e. the obligation by that specific person to pay a sum of money. The legal noose that you hold is round the neck of the individual and is not attached to any particular sum of money that the individual might pay over. A proprietary right, on the other hand, is over a specific piece of property regardless of its current possessor – your right is attached to that property and follows that property wherever it goes.

With libertarian law and its focus on property we must be, in the first instance, suspicious of this distinction. In the first place aren’t all rights in a libertarian world property rights and aren’t all people demanding the enforcement of their property rights? Secondly, don’t all rights and obligations exist between individuals and not between individuals and things?

The confusion stems from the way in which contemporary legal systems, possessing no rationale as to the concept of property, understand the meaning of “title”. The reason why rights and ownership claims over property arise is to avoid conflicts arising from scarcity – conflicts which take their substance as two or more people wishing to take ultimate control and possession of the property. Any one person at any time will have physical control and possession of the property and it is this person who has the de facto title to that property – what we might, for argument’s sake, term the possessive title. It is within his actual, physical power to dispose of that property as he wishes. However, when we say in a libertarian sense, that a person has “title” to property we mean this normatively – that the individual should have – i.e. is entitled to – possession and control of that property but may not necessarily have it at this moment in time. It is by comparing the possessive and normative titles – who does and who should have control and possession respectively – that we can determine who is violating the rights of whom, if at all. A creditor, for example, has a normative title to a sum of money on its due date; the debtor has possessive title. The debtor is required to relinquish possessive title to the creditor. If he does not do so then he is in violating the creditor’s normative title and may be subject to legal sanction.

In a libertarian sense, therefore, a person may have a normative title to property but this does not necessarily mean that he will be entitled to a proprietary remedy as understood by contemporary legal systems. In other words, he will not necessarily have a noose around a specific, earmarked piece of property in the debtor’s possession and will, instead, only have what is termed a “personal right”. After all, strict, proprietary rights may simply be unavailable. A defaulting debtor, for example, may owe money to numerous creditors yet have insufficient funds to pay all of them in full. The creditors cannot enjoy a proprietary title as the funds simply do not exist for them to have title over. All they have is the normative, legal force of the debtor’s obligation to transfer to them possessive title of a sum of money. Indeed, at least when it comes to the enforcement of debts to be paid in money, the whole distinction only really becomes relevant for practical purposes at the point of litigation when one is dealing with an insolvent debtor. Although we are not examining specifically bankruptcy laws in a libertarian world, we must assume that something akin to limited liability partnerships or corporations may exist and there will exist occasions when multiple creditors have to share between them an insufficient pool of assets in the debtor’s possession in order to extinguish as much of the debt as possible. Where, in such an instance, a creditor can only establish the equivalent of a personal right – i.e. no right over a particular set of the debtors’ assets – then he must take his place amongst all the other creditors, sharing out the assets that remain and must be content to write off the unfulfilled portion of the debt. Where, however, a creditor can establish a proprietary right, it enables him to ring fence that particular good in the debtor’s possession and prevent it from being parcelled out amongst the other creditors. One therefore leapfrogs ahead of everyone else to whom the debtor owes obligations. Such a creditor with a proprietary title is said to be a secured creditor. There is therefore a strong incentive for a creditor to attempt to establish a proprietary title over a specific piece of property in the debtor’s possession as it almost guarantees that his debt will be paid in full.

We might say, therefore, that in keeping with the libertarian understanding of property rights and titles, the distinction will be between a personal action on the one hand and a proprietary action on the other; the former being the suing of a specific person for a thing; the latter being the suing for a specific thing of a person. How will libertarian legal systems handle these types of action and in which cases will it recognise a proprietary remedy on the one hand a less exalted personal remedy on the other? What form will a proprietary remedy take?

Before we proceed with this discussion it is appropriate here to discuss the trust mechanism. A trust is a specific type of property arrangement. It is where the possessive title is held by one individual (“the trustee”) whereas the beneficial title is held by another (“the beneficiary”). The latter’s title is not a mere personal right over the trustee; rather, it is a full, proprietary title over the assets that form the subject matter of the trust and these assets are segregated from the trustee’s personal assets so that in the event of the trustee’s insolvency his creditors may not touch the trust property. A trust is not an independent causative event of legal liability such as a tort or contract; rather, it is the property arrangement that results from a causative event. For example, a contract may create an “express trust” in order for a trustee to manage property on behalf beneficiaries – for example, an investment trust or a charitable trust. On the other hand, courts may impose trusts – referred to as “constructive trusts” or the more bizarre “resulting trusts” – in response to wrongs or unjust enrichment. Where, for example, an individual aggresses against a person’s property, a court might hold that the aggressed party retains a beneficial title over that property and the property is therefore ring-fenced from the aggressor’s assets1.

It is possible, indeed likely, that the trust arrangement will remain in a libertarian legal system, both as purposeful arrangements in order to dispose of property in a prescribed way, or as the result of an outcome of litigation. Our interest here is with the latter – when and where are libertarian courts likely to award a proprietary remedy to the plaintiff and when will he gain a mere personal right? In order to discuss this with clarity, we ought to first suggest some terminology for the different types of titles that can exist over a piece of property:

  • Possessive Title – held by the person with de facto control and/or possession of the property;
  • Beneficial Title – a proprietary title that ring fences the property securely from the assets of the holder of the possessive title; this title is both de facto and normative and will be held only by the individual whom the courts deem should possess it;
  • Personal Title – a title that enables a person to use legal force to demand possessive title from the holder of the latter; the title is normative only; no property in the debtor’s possession is ring-fenced2.

Under pure libertarian theory, no aggressive act would be sufficient to transfer any title over property whatsoever to the aggressor and full proprietary title would remain in the hands of the plaintiff. However, as we keep stressing throughout this series, law and legal systems have to deal with the practicality of legal enforcement and recovery, the greatest consideration of which is cost.  What follows is likely to be the most sensible approach of libertarian legal systems to balance libertarianism’s approach to property on the one hand with practical considerations on the other.

Where the good that is the object of aggressive behaviour is non-fungible and exists as an independent, stand-alone, ring-fenced entity then the courts will award the plaintiff with a beneficial title to that property. For example, if A delivers a television set to B in advance of the payment of £100 for the set to which B agreed, possessive title of the television set passes to B. In the event of B’s default the court is likely to recognise A’s beneficial title over the television set. A’s right, therefore, extends over the television set and does not follow, for ever and a day, the particular person who presently has possessive title over the television set but may not do so in the future. The primary good that will usually subject to proprietary remedies will, of course, be land. Land is non-fungible, ring-fenced, easily identifiable and, also, immoveable – making the awarding of a proprietary remedy to the plaintiff the most desired and the most practical solution.

Where, however, the good is fungible and mixed with other, equally fungible units of the good so that it is neither independent nor ring-fenced then the court is likely to award the plaintiff only a personal title to that property – a right that follows the specific debtor and not the actual physical matter that is subject to dispute. The most common form of fungible good is, of course, money. If B pays A £100 in advance for delivery of a television set, that money is transferred into A’s bank account and is mixed with all of his other monetary assets. These will be used to pay other creditors and suppliers in the meantime before B’s delivery may become due. There is absolutely no way that, in the event of A’s default, it could be said that any specific quantity of notes, ounces of gold or whatever that B transferred to A were his, much less so if A has transferred a portion of those funds to pay other suppliers. The contrary would result in the absurd position where every single unit of currency would be tagged and tracked in and out of A’s possession, into his bank account, and out to third parties, then onto other parties and so. Especially as a period of time usually elapses before a legal action is pursued, one might have to go to the ends of the earth to pursue one’s actual money if it had been subject to hundreds of transfers in the meantime. Rather, the court is likely to hold simply that B possesses a personal title to £100 of A’s and it remains A’s obligation to pay that money across. A simple test of fungiblity is to ask whether the plaintiff would be satisfied with payment of any unit of currency or ounce of gold etc., or whether he does in fact demand the very units or ounces that the defendant took from him. If you are owed £10 you don’t necessarily want the very note that was taken from you – you just want any £10 note, or two £5 notes, or ten £1 coins, or whatever.

Gradations between these two extremes – non-fungible, ring-fenced goods on the one hand, and fungible, mixed goods on the other – will have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. For example, one television set may be like any other that is manufactured just like it and a person owed a television set may be happy to take any one. These television sets may be pooled in a warehouse and not yet allocated to specific customers; indeed, there might not even have been enough television sets produced to fulfil all of the orders. In such cases only personal titles may be awarded to the plaintiff. On the other hand, money can be easily ring-fenced by its deposit into a segregated account; other fungible goods such as shares may be held on trust by a manager for numerous investors, their proportionate share of the property remaining constant depending upon their contribution to the fund. These are the sorts of considerations that courts will be faced with when determining whether to award personal or proprietary remedies as the result of litigation.

Concurrent Liability

It is sometimes the case in contemporary legal systems that the same facts can give grounds for a plaintiff to bring an action under different areas of the law. For example, a plaintiff may be able to bring an action under contract or under tort. This possibility stems, once more, from the divorce of contemporary legal systems from any rationale as to precisely what it is that generates legal liability. Under libertarian principles it is only a physical invasion of the person or property of another that gives grounds for liability. Nothing else will suffice. Under libertarian law, a “contract” is not, strictly speaking, a causative event of legal liability. Rather, it is an area of the law that gives a body of rules for examining the property relations that exist between the parties. Once this is established, the only question that determines whether there is legal liability is if there is a physical invasion of property under those arrangements. The courts therefore face two questions when it comes to the determination of the liability of the defendant:

1. What are the property arrangements between the parties?

2. Having established these property arrangements, did the defendant commit an act of aggression against the property of the plaintiff?

If the case is one of a simple, unilateral wrong then the first question can usually be overlooked. It is assumed that whatever each party brought to the situation belonged to him. If A punches B then it is clear that the body of A belongs to A and the body of B belongs to B, barring some special circumstance. On the contrary, where A is trying to take property from B that B previously stole from A, A will adduce evidence that the property was rightfully his and the question of what the correct property arrangements between the parties are will have to be examined.

One particular area of the law where this question is quite important is product liability – specifically, products that turn out to be dangerous and cause injury, as opposed to products that are merely do not work or are not “fit for purpose”. In these cases, there is a contract between the parties for the transfer of the product. In the famous case of Donoghue v Stevenson, for example, the plaintiff purchased a ginger beer bottle from a bar. The bottle of ginger beer, unbeknownst to the plaintiff, contained the remains of a rotting snail. The plaintiff drank the beer and fell ill as a result of its contents and sued the defendant in tort.

At first blush, this case seems a little mysterious. For hadn’t the plaintiff purchased the bottle of ginger beer and hadn’t title over it passed to her? Therefore, at the point she was injured, did she not own the bottle and there was, therefore, no aggression on the part of the defendant? Indeed, it seems ironic that the seminal case in English tort law is one in which the plaintiff was injured by her own property3. The correct analysis of the case, however, is to examine the contractual relations between the parties in order to determine the property relations first. The contract was for the transfer of a bottle of ginger beer. It was not for a bottle of ginger beer containing a snail. Title to the ginger beer bottle containing the snail never passed and thus the injuries resulting to the plaintiff were caused by the property of the defendant. Hence the plaintiff could properly sue the defendant for an aggression. The case would have been different had the contract specified that all defects in the product were the responsibility of the plaintiff, or if the contract had been for “the object in front of the parties” and not for an object of any particular description. In such an instance, full title to the ginger beer bottle containing the snail would have passed to the plaintiff and she would have had no action as the injury resulted from her own property. While this is theoretically possible, of course, most vendors will be keen to specify the compensatory remedies available in the contract and the discipline of the marketplace is likely to prevent them from passing on liability for their errors wholly onto the shoulders of their customers. In principle, however, it demonstrates the importance of determining the property arrangements between the parties prior to any investigation as to whether there was any aggressive action.

Unjust Enrichment

It is with this understanding that we can proceed to examine the area of the law known as unjust enrichment. Usually referred to as the law of restitution, unjust enrichment is, like contract, not an independent causative event of legal liability but, rather another example of a type of property arrangement between the parties. It is appears in every situation that is akin to the mistaken payment of a non-existent debt. A owes B £500; he pays, in error, £1000 so that B has been “unjustly enriched” by £500. B is required to transfer the overpayment back to A.

For a long time in our contemporary legal systems discussion of unjust enrichment was buried in that of other areas of law, mostly contract. It is not difficult to see why as most cases of mistaken transfer will occur when there are pre-existing relationships between the parties. Indeed, a simple payment made in error or an overpayment is only the most basic case. Others include mistakes regarding the property that is the subject of a contract – i.e. A thinks he is purchasing a car and pays B for a car when B thinks he is selling a van and believes he is receiving money for a van.

Once again, lacking any rationale as to what should constitute the triggering causal event of legal liability, case law and academic writing has been divided between whether the plaintiff’s case is actionable because of some “unjust factor” on the one hand – that it would, in some way, be “unjust” for the defendant to retain the property – or because the mistaken transfer had an “absence of basis” on the other. Libertarian law should be able to transcend this debate. Our first task is to examine precisely which property arrangements arise under the fact of the mistaken payment; we then have to see if the defendant aggressed against property that belonged to the plaintiff. In all cases of unjust enrichment – whatever the facts from which the claim arises – there is, initially, no aggression. The payment is made freely and voluntarily by the plaintiff – he sends it into the defendant’s possession and voluntarily transfers to him possessive title of the property. The defendant in no way initiates any action that invades the person or property of the plaintiff. It is likely the courts will recognise that the normative title to the property remains with the plaintiff from the point that the “mistaken” transfer was made. It is not the defendant’s property – the fact of “mistake” itself reveals that the plaintiff made no transfer of the normative title to the property upon the defendant4.

Whether any situation akin to a “mistake” occurred will have to be judged from examining the actions and arrangements between the parties. Let us examine the simplest of cases – where the plaintiff alleges that there was a simple error of overpayment by him to the defendant. In order to determine the fact of mistake, the court would have to ask whether there a valid contract for the transfer of the sum; or whether it was a gift or donation. For example, if you are presented with an invoice from your phone company for £50 and you pay £100 this would, in most cases indicate that the overpaid sum was mistaken, unless the telephone company could adduce evidence that the plaintiff was making an advance payment for future services or (more unlikely) a gift or a donation.

Having established that the property still rightfully belongs to the plaintiff and not to the defendant, we then have to determine if the defendant aggressed against that property. The initial act of transfer by the plaintiff will not be, as we have said, an act of aggression by the defendant. However, anything else that the defendant does with that property – i.e. a fresh act resulting from the intervention of the defendant’s will – is, under our standard of strict liability for aggression, an invasion of the person or property of the plaintiff and the defendant is prima facie liable. If this occurs after the defendant realised the mistake then the case is straightforward – it is a clear and wanton act of aggression against the person or property of another and the case simply proceeds as an ordinary case of tort or crime. The difficulty, however, is what the courts should do if the defendant should make such an intervention of will before he realises that the transfer was mistaken. He could trade it, alter it, destroy it or otherwise dispose of it entirely innocently and only because the plaintiff voluntarily transferred the property to him.

It is likely that the courts, although sustaining the prima facie liability of the defendant based upon strict liability, will permit the defendant to invoke the mistake of the plaintiff in transferring the sum as a defence against all acts of aggression that occur between the point of transfer and between the point that the defendant realises the mistake. The precise latter point will need to be determined by the courts and the burden will fall on the plaintiff to adduce evidence of precisely when the defendant knew that receipt of the transfer was mistaken. This gives a clear incentive for plaintiffs to communicate the fact of mistake to defendants in a timely manner as the communication itself will bring forward the point that the defendant is made aware of it. Alternatively, if the defendant is a business, producing a statement of account would likely suffice as evidence of overpayment or mistaken payment in the simplest cases5.

Wherever the point at which the defendant becomes aware of the mistake, after this point he may not commit any act of aggression against the mistakenly transferred property and is required to return it to the plaintiff. For any acts before this point he will be protected.

How can we justify this defence? The first and simplest answer is the plaintiff’s material contribution to the act of aggression by sending his property into the possession of the defendant. It seems unjust to hold the defendant liable when he has had the property of the defendant forced upon him. Indeed, an alternative analysis might even hold that the unjust enrichment is itself an act of aggression on the part of the plaintiff. This can be contrasted with the situation where the defendant commits an act of aggression against the plaintiff’s property and each party is, similarly, unaware of it until a later date. Here the lack of awareness will not absolve the defendant as the act of aggression was wholly of his making. Second, consider the situation where the mistake is, in fact, never realised by the parties. What happens then? Legal rights and obligations arise only when individual parties recognise a conflict arising from scarcity. Absent any realisation of a conflict then there is simply no substance for legal rights and responsibilities. During the point between the transfer and the realisation of the mistake, each of the parties believes that everything is sound and nothing untoward has occurred; both parties go about their daily lives as if nothing had happened. In short, at this point, there simply is no conflict. Indeed, both may go forward from that point in total ignorance that the mistake had ever occurred and it will go with them to the grave. Both parties will proceed with their lives unmolested by the law while they remain in this state. The fact that the mistake becomes realised at a later date does not change the ex-ante­ position between the parties. Once again we can compare and contrast acts of physical invasion of which the parties are not immediately aware – particularly noise, light, odours and so on. Whether or not these are aggressive depends upon the plaintiff enforcing his rights. If he does not so within a certain period of time then it demonstrates that there was no genuine conflict and the courts may grant an easement title to the defendant to continue the “invasive” act. Similar considerations may apply here. If the plaintiff does not take steps to enforce his rights and demonstrate his realisation of the mistake then it proves that there is no substance to the conflict and after that time full title to the mistakenly paid property may pass to the defendant. Third and finally, we must also remember the libertarian principle that each individual person is responsible for his/her own property and for those acts that he initiates with it. This includes ensuring that it does not aggress against any other individual but it also means that you are responsible for your own mistakes with your property. Whatever you do, whether you produce it, consume it, destroy it, trade it, you cannot compel others to pay you for losses arising from any mistaken appreciation of carrying out these actions. If you cannot hold anyone responsible for your unilateral mistakes with your property then it follows that you should not, as a plaintiff, hold them responsible when the mistake is bilateral and wholly of your origination. Indeed, “mistake” itself is a very broad category and can involve anything from hitting an incorrect digit on a keyboard all the way to having a complete misunderstanding about the market environment for a particular business venture. Your losses in both instances are “mistakes” yet we would never suggest that a loss making businessman is not responsible for his losses; in turn, he should also be responsible when he makes an error when transferring a payment. Such mistakes are also a natural part of life – not only through absent-mindedness, but misinformation, misunderstanding and also where payments are initiated before a change in circumstances becomes apparent. And as we said in our discussion on liability for wrongs, the responsibility for these events remains with the property owner. In short, if you throw your sheep to the wolves, do not automatically expect that you will be able to get it back! At the very least we can say that this defence is consistent with the approaches towards aggression we have discussed previously.

What is the extent of this defence? Much of this question is likely to depend on whether the courts vest in the plaintiff a proprietary title over the mistakenly transferred property or merely a personal one. If it is a personal one – as in the case of fungible, unsegregated goods such as money – the defendant is likely to be liable to make the repayment even if he transferred the very notes paid over to him in error out of his possession. The strongest likely defence in this instance will be that of “change of position” – where the defendant can adduce evidence that he innocently changed his financial plans as a result of the mistaken payment, assuming that he had more funds than he thought he did. This has occurred in cases where banks have mistakenly paid sums into the wrong bank account. Genuinely assuming that they had more money than they thought, the recipients proceeded to increase their spending. Should such a change of plans be evidenced then the banks should forfeit the loss. On the other hand, if the title is proprietary then the plaintiff’s claim follows the particular piece of transferred property. Anything that the defendant does to the property before the mistake is realised the plaintiff will have to live with – if this includes alteration or degradation then he will receive it back in its altered and degraded state. If it is transferred out of the defendant’s hands to a bona fide third party the plaintiff may have to forfeit the property entirely.

Finally we can compare and contrast the situation of a mistaken payment with that of the transfer of sums of money in advance for the performance of a service or in exchange for another good. Here, a normative title over the money remains in the hands of the transferor at all times. Although the act of aggression only occurs once the defendant fails to perform his half of the bargain, this does not mean he can  invoke any defence if he trades or otherwise disposes of the money before that time. For here, the parties are aware of the property distribution between themselves and will very much be aware of a conflict should the defendant abscond with the money. On the other hand, if we have the case of A paying in money in advance mistakenly believing that the contract is for a car whereas B believes that the contract is for a van (and B delivers the van) the mistake of A’s will allow B to assert a defence against A’s claim for his money back if he dealt with it before the mistake was realised.

We must conclude this section by restating that all of this may be wrong and may be courts will hold defendants liable for knowing what they are receiving. Indeed in many cases the mistake may be mutual rather than wholly one-sided. However, it seems that, at least in the classic, core case of unjust enrichment the approach outlined here is the most consistent with libertarian principles. Finally, of course, parties may choose to vary their respective liability for an unjust enrichment by contract – for example if an existing customer makes an overpayment, the contract may specify a procedure for returning these funds or for allocating them towards future services.

Restrictive Transfers and Perpetuities

One further interesting topic is how restrictive transfers of property would be handled by a libertarian legal system. A restrictive transfer is any transfer that does not vest ownership of the property absolutely in the transferee. For example, A transfers the ownership of a car to B providing that B uses it only to travel to or from work; C transfers to D a house provided that he lets Mrs E, an elderly widow, have residence for life; F transfers a strip of land to G provided that G permits a right of way to the owner of the neighbouring land and the latter’s successors in title. All of these cases vest in someone other than the owner a residual title to the property that may be enforced under the terms of the transfer. Usually the transferee will have paid a lower purchase price than he would have done for outright title – after all, you would not pay the same price for a house with a restrictive covenant than you would for a house that confers upon you the right to do whatever you liked6. Hence he is not paying for a full transfer of title. In simple cases of restriction such as the doing or not doing something on a property then this residual title will remain with the transferor. Should the transferee proceed to carry out the prohibited act he has now violated the transferor’s residual title and the latter may sue. In cases where the contract confers a benefit upon a third party – e.g. the widow who may stay in residence for life or the neighbouring property that is granted a right of way – it is the third party who holds the title.

This brings us to the question of wills, bequests and trusts that are set up in apparent perpetuity for the benefit of certain beneficiaries or to carry out certain purposes. For example, a person may decide to bequeath all of his wealth to his eldest son, provided that the latter bequeaths it to his eldest son and then to the latter’s eldest son and so on forever. Or a person may stipulate that he will transfer land provided that neither the transferee nor his successors in title ever build on the land for the rest of eternity, even after the transferor is long dead. In all of these cases can the so-called “dead hand” of the settlor command rights and obligations over property for the remainder of time? Our contemporary legal systems have invoked perpetuity rules in order to prevent property from being tied up unreasonably into the distant future. Usually the interests bequeathed by all such bequests or transfers must vest in the beneficiaries within a period of “lives in being” plus twenty-one years. Hence, inserted into bequests are bizarre “Victoria” or “Kennedy” clauses stipulating that the directions for the property will remain for as long as the lifespan of the youngest living descendant of Queen Victoria (or of Joseph P Kennedy) plus a period of twenty-one years. After that time any specified interest in the bequest is invalid and the property vests absolutely in the last, valid beneficiary.

Libertarian law has no need for such an absurd and artificial rule. All rights and obligations belong to living, individual human beings and the courts will not enforce a stipulation laid down long ago by a deceased person. How then are directions stipulated in wills or bequests enforced beyond the lifetime of the settlor? The answer, once again, is to look to the residual title of the transferor. When he dies, this title will be inherited by his heirs. The latter then have the choice to continue to enforce the restriction or to relinquish it. For example, if a person bequeaths money to a hospital for the sole purpose of providing care to the terminally ill, the restriction vests in the transferor a residual title to enforce that restriction. While the transferor is still alive he is likely to enforce it, of course. When he dies, however, that title passes to his heir who may decide to continue to enforce it or may negotiate with the hospital for its relinquishment. Should he choose to continue it – perhaps out of respect for the original transferor – it will then pass to his heirs, and so on. With a property restriction that, say, confers a right of way upon the owner of a neighbouring property and his successors in title, exactly the same kind of situation occurs. If the succeeding beneficiaries of the right of way down the generations wish to continue to benefit then they will proceed to enforce the right. If not then then they will arrange for its relinquishment (or, more likely, the beneficiary will sell the right to the owner of the burdened property and the latter will then own the property outright). As long as the heirs continue to enforce the residual title then the desire to use that property in the manner stipulated by the original transferor is not the desire of some long dead settlor but is, rather, that of real, living human beings. There is, therefore, no distinct problem of perpetuities in a libertarian legal order. In any case, as time moves on certain restrictions may become forgotten and unexercised. Succeeding property owners of land that benefits from a right of way over adjoining land may, after a few generations, be completely unaware of that right of way and will not use it. Indeed the owner of the burdened property may, in the same state of ignorance, block access to the right of way with no alarm from its supposed beneficiaries. In this case, the courts may take this as evidence of abandonment of the title and full, beneficial use of the restricted property reverts to its owner. This is a similar approach to what courts are likely to do when determining whether there has been an aggression action against property in the first place – if the right was not exercised for a period of time then it demonstrates that the actors have no conflict in their minds and the defendant’s act, while physical in nature, generated no substantive invasion of rights. Hence we should also not have any problem of people “digging up” ancient documents, discovering long forgotten titles and then suddenly demanding their enforcement.

Finally, we must also remember the libertarian devotion to the market as opposed to the force of law that is the way of the statist. If people wish to donate their wealth to good causes or for specific purposes after they die and they wish this to be for at least a significant period in the future then suppliers of this need will be hot on their tail. Companies could offer to receive an individual’s money upon that person’s death and devote it to whichever purpose that individual wished. Legally, title to the property vests in the company absolutely but the discipline of the marketplace will ensure that they do not misuse it – if they do, people will, in the future, turn to more reliable competitors to whom to make their bequests and the abusive company will go bankrupt.

A Final Map of Libertarian Law

Having concluded our survey of causative events of legal liability in a libertarian legal system, we are now in a position to sketch an outline of the map of libertarian law and it categories.

There will be specific areas of the law devoted to determining what the property rights between the parties are, based upon libertarian principles. These are, namely:

  • The law of self-ownership;
  • The law of original appropriation;
  • The law of contract;
  • The law of unjust enrichment;

We might also include in this list the law of trusts although, as we indicated above, a trust is a property mechanism that results from various events and does not necessarily sit neatly in the above list. There might also be specific areas of the law devoted to incorporated associations such as companies.

All of these categories of law that determine the property distribution between the parties then feed into the central area of law which is the law of wrongs (torts and crimes). The previous categories having established what the property rights are, this area of the law determines whether there was an aggression against that property as we outlined in part four. Notice that there is no separate procedure for criminal and tortious acts as there is in our contemporary legal systems – the investigation of aggression is a unified whole and proceeds in one direction; the distinction between crime and tort is only one question to be examined in this process.

These areas mark the extent of that which we have investigated thus far. There will also be specific areas of the law that determine appropriate remedies for an aggression against property, part of which, in addition to theories of compensation and restitution, will have to examine libertarian theories of punishment and the viability of introducing punishment as a response to an invasion against property.

We can conclude by noting that nothing in this brief sketch includes any mention of “public law” or laws that apply to state, government, administrative or statutory bodies. All law in a libertarian society is “private law”; all legal rights and obligations exist between individual human beings and all of this law rests upon the same principles that are binding upon everyone regardless of their societal status and function. No individual human will be either privileged or persecuted by a libertarian legal system.

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1However, the precise causative events that give rise to some of these trusts appear relatively unclear in the case law, probably because trusts were developed in Equity which was based on much more vague and loose principles than the common law. “Unconscionable behaviour” seems to be a favourite phrase that courts use to justify the imposition of a constructive trust.

2None of this terminology need necessarily be used in a libertarian legal system – we are using it here simply for clarity.

3Actually, the bottle was not purchased by the plaintiff but by her friend who was accompanying her, but we will remove this complication for the sake of simplicity

4This may sound similar to the “absence of basis” approach of contemporary legal systems, but whereas this concept is vague and unanchored in the crucial libertarian concept of property, our doctrine is certain – either there is a “mistaken” transfer or there is a valid declaration of transfer. Only one or the other can occur and they are mutually exclusive.

5Considerations as to whether a defendant “should” have made himself aware of the mistake are likely to be irrelevant – a court cannot force an individual or entity to look after its financial or proprietary affairs with any particular degree of care. Other, extra-legal considerations are likely to bring this about – businesses will want to keep accurate records in order to keep customers satisfied by stating accurately the contractual relations and the accounts between them.

6In some circumstances, however, such a covenant may serve to increase the value of a property. If, for example, the covenant may apply to all properties in, say, a housing development programme and will be designed to restrict and curtail certain activities in order to give a neighbourhood a certain quality and attractiveness.

Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Four – Wrongs

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

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

Libertarian Definition of a “Wrong”

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

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

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

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

Standard of Liability

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

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

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

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

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

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

Establishing Liability

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

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

Assuming that there is an actionable physical act of invasion the initiation of the act must be implemented by an intervening act of will of another legal person. Acts initiated solely by the laws of physics are not aggressive actions but merely the acts of nature. While in most cases the intervention of will is likely to be contemporaneous with the act of aggression – A punches B; C stabs D, and so on – there is no requirement for it to be so. I may accidentally leave the hand brake off on my car and half an hour later the car rolls into someone; I may build a house that many years later collapses and falls onto another person. All ownership derives from acts of deliberate, physical acts of homesteading which transform an object from one good into another – in other words, the condition of owned goods is always the result of the intervention of will. Prima facie, therefore, the owner of a good is liable for its physical invasion of another person or the latter’s property. However, where there is a further intervention of will by another individual then it is this latter individual who becomes liable. For example, A uses B’s knife to stab C. Neither A nor anything that belongs to him may ever actually touch C but it was the intervention of his will, beginning with his own body, that initiated the act of aggression, not that of B. B’s knife was merely the intermediate tool that was used to fulfil the act and simply because B owned the knife does not mean that he should be liable for the stabbing, barring some special circumstance4. In cases where someone stabs you with your own knife then the aggression has already began when the person assumes physical control of your knife.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Extent of Liability

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

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

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

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

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

Nature of Liablity

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Defence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8[2006] UKHL 20

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 true, a simpler explanation is that as the statement or promise has not transferred the actual good under consideration, there must, in a libertarian legal system, be some other property that is transferred. 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 the intention of 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 not 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.

 

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 those goods do not physically interfere with the person and property of anybody else, otherwise he breaches the non-aggression principle. 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. For example, if a car runs over a person, you are responsible only if it is your car and you are driving it or otherwise have responsibility over the person driving it. It would be a travesty of justice if, barring any special circumstance, you were held legally liable for someone else causing an accident in their car. Similarly if I murder someone with my knife then it should be me that is held legally liable for this and not anyone else, again barring any particular circumstance that may cause others to be liable. 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 not only the exclusive right to their enjoyment but also the obligation to ensure that it does not interfere with the person or property of anyone else? Or is something more required? The key test is likely to be whether a given action produces anothergood 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 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 property may be able to sue him; if not, and the collapsed house is ownerless then the collapse is akin to an act of nature (such as a tree falling or a lightning strike) and the owner of the neighbouring, damaged 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.

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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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.

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