Decentralisation and Liberty

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In some recent essays concerning the UK’s referendum in June to determine its membership of the European Union, and the virtues of small states as opposed to larger states, we elaborated some themes regarding how decentralisation and decentralising processes are a boon for individual liberty and a step towards harmony and economic progress. This essay will gather these thoughts together with an emphasis on how small or, rather, optimally sized institutional units pave the way towards two things that not only libertarians, but also everyone else, will claim to want to achieve – economic prosperity on the one hand, and minimal war and conflict on the other.

The mantra of statist and, indeed, mainstream political thinking is that unity, centralisation and the consolidation of states and state institutions is the way forward for peace and prosperity. Not only does this mean larger state institutions with more power but also the fusion of individual states into larger territories under a single jurisdiction. In some ways this seems plausible, even to the libertarian. Wouldn’t unified laws will aid certainty? Wouldn’t we be better off if there were no borders or tariffs to impede the trade goods and workers? And surely the possibility of war will be diminished if we all join together under one, unified banner?

The main problem with this view, however, is that it places the state, state institutions and what these institutions wish to achieve at the centre of society. All of the millions of individual people and thousands of non-state, voluntary institutions that are motivated by their own desires, values and choices are ignored or at least subsumed by the grander edifice. Most lay people who hold the centralising view probably do so naively, but it is the primary preoccupation of statists and intellectual elites that society is something to be managed, controlled or directed by them and those like them while all of the lesser beings should be made to obey quietly with the confidence that their highly educated masters are doing what is best for them. Indeed, rather than seeing any value in individual, voluntary and non-state institutions, the centralising view treats the human race as one, giant, amorphous blob, like a lump of play dough that can be shaped in any way and manner that can be chosen at will – and that the easier it is for the dough to be shaped then the better society will be. Hence, the holders of this view are likely to look favourably upon institutional centralisation and consolidation which conveniently places more power in the hands of people such as themselves to achieve their shaping of society according to their visions. This attitude was rife, at least implicitly, among the so-called “Remainers” in the UK’s “Brexit” vote on June 23rd. Not only, is it believed, that all good things flow from the top down like manna from heaven, but that anyone who was in favour of leaving the EU was, in some way, stupid, backward or a kind of provincial, country hillbilly. For instance, shortly after the referendum, Professor A C Grayling called on Parliament to block Britain’s exit from the EU on the grounds that it is Parliament’s job to determine what is best for the electorate, the latter of which lack “the expertise, patience and time” to make decisions via a direct vote. The implication of this is that the people do not know what is best for them and they have blindingly walked down the path of sheer folly by voting to leave the EU, and they should instead have placed their trust in those better educated than themselves. However, he has completely missed the lesson that should have been learned from this result. The establishment wheeled out all of the big guns in order to persuade the electorate to vote for “Remain” – including the current and the three former living Prime Ministers, most of Parliament and the Cabinet, the Bank of England’s chief and other big bank bosses, the IMF, directors from at least fifty-one FTSE 100 companies, and many heads of foreign governments including the President of the United States – and yet “Leave” still won the vote. When the advice of all of these heavyweights is rejected by the British public then, instead of stooping into a sulk over the supposed stupidity of the great unwashed and demanding that they defer to the “expertise” of their so-called representatives, Grayling and his ilk should realise that such a rejection indicates that everyone is just a bit fed up of being told what is good for them and having decisions made for them by political elites. Such decisions and endless promises of peace and prosperity have brought us, in the last twenty years, two burst financial bubbles, massive money printing that has made the rich richer while failing to provide productive jobs and increasing incomes for everyone else, and at least half a dozen disastrous wars and interventions that are producing deadly blowback in the form of terrorism. What the elitist attitude ignores is that society is not something that is there to be engineered and moulded like a lump of metal in a blacksmith’s forge. Rather, it is made up of individual people who shape it according to their individual thoughts, feelings and desires, motivated by what they believe is best for themselves and for their families. An economy is not some giant machine into which goes “input” to be processed by “jobs” into some kind of “output”, nor is it necessarily true that the higher the numbers of “input”, “jobs” and “output” the better everything is. Rather, a prosperous economy is the product of individual people trading resources voluntarily in directions that they see fit so that they can satisfy ends that they wish to see fulfilled. “Society” is not a collective that demands broad brush categories such as “food” or “houses” or “better railways” etc. Rather, it is me wanting, say, a ham sandwich at 1pm on Tuesday, or you wanting a small apartment in the Hampstead area of London to rent for three years, a business wanting to invest in a small car factory that will be completed in the five years, and everyone else wanting a myriad of highly specific ends in highly specific places at highly specific times that are the product of our own choosing. The economy is not something to be directed by central banks who squash the rate of interest down to its lowest possible point through so-called “monetary policy” or “quantitative easing” in order to “stimulate” some kind of beast into life. Rather, the rate of interest reflects the strength of everybody’s individual preferences for consumption ahead of investment so that the correct amount of resources can be sustainably channelled into roundabout methods of production. Each of us co-operates, through the division of labour, to accomplish things that we each want with the resources available in varying timescales that we are each prepared to bear. It is this co-operation of individuals to achieve their own ends through the nexus of production, trade and exchange that creates a society and not any management and direction from giant, all-encompassing institutions that achieve their ends through force.

The second problem with the centralising view is that the achievement of peace and prosperity in fact demands the very opposite of state and institutional centralisation and consolidation. As counter-intuitive as it might sound, harmony is achieved by division, not unity, while the growth and strength of the human race as a whole is accomplished by the weakness, relative to each other, of its component parts. Economic prosperity, for instance, is characterised by a growing complexity of the economic system – an increasing division of labour with more and more different people specialising in more and more different tasks to produce more and more different products for more and more different people. In other words, its natural tendency is to spread outwards from the centre with more diffused, decentralised knowledge and specialisation. Growth and centralisation of the institutions that support this prosperity under the banner of unity are therefore likely to stifle rather than aid its progress. Indeed the very concept of “unity” requires the same, repeated rules for everyone and the same approaches towards everything regardless of their individual, specialist needs. Hence you get the proliferation, in large, consolidated states, of “one size fits all solutions” that attempt to force everyone through a single, “unified” channel, as though all of us with all of our differences characteristics and requirements are being squeezed through a sausage maker to create a bland, blended puree. (Curiously, those who champion centralisation and state uniformity are also the ones who squeal for “diversity” and celebrating “difference” – at least when those diverse differences are demonstrated or practised by favoured minority groups). Indeed, it is usually, if not always, the case in nature that as something becomes bigger and more complex it is characterised by greater division and decentralisation, not by increased unity and consolidation. A human being is not simply a larger version of a single cell organism. Rather, he is made up of a countless number of individual cells that coalesce into different organs and tissues, each of which specialises in different life sustaining activities. We do not have one, single “unified” organ that pumps the blood, inhales and exhales air, rids the body of toxins, acts as a nervous system and also as a skeleton. In other words as nature achieved a complex human being by decentralising and delegating various functions to different organs that act independently of, but symbiotically with each other, so too will humans only achieve a complex and prosperous society by increasing the division of labour and the degree of specialisation in more and more decentralised institutions.

Division rather than unity is also necessary for creating and preserving the conditions that economic prosperity requires – strong private property rights, minimal taxation and minimal regulation. The benefits of a large number of divided states as opposed to large, unified states, is that if one tiny state of a size equivalent to Luxembourg implements, say, an onerous tax then only that state is affected and the disruption to everyone else in the world will be relatively minimal. If that state introduces ridiculously high border tariffs then only the small proportion of global trade into that territory will be burdened while freer trade will remain for everybody else. Similarly if that state introduces burdensome laws and regulations that infringe upon people’s lives only those people will be affected. The hampering effects of state action upon economic prosperity will, therefore, be localised and minimalised in a world of deconsolidated, small states. In a world of much larger states and state institutions, however, the introduction of a tax will affect everyone; the introduction of a new regulation will affect everyone, everywhere at all times regardless of their own needs and preferences; and the introduction of a border tariff will affect the trade of everybody who wishes to trade across the lines of the large, unified state. Hence the hampering effects of state taxes and regulations and infringements upon private property are magnified as the state becomes larger. This is not all, however, for the incentives to tax, regulate and otherwise infringe private property rights are much greater in a large, unified state than in smaller states. Smaller states are, by their nature, economically weaker than larger states and are more reliant upon maintaining the free flow of goods and services from abroad which simply cannot be produced with the resources at home. Each state will therefore compete with all other states to attract foreign investment and the unhindered import and export of goods and services by minimising taxes, regulation and border tariffs. Because the jurisdiction of a small state covers only a small area, if its rates of taxation, regulation and border tariffs are relatively high then investment will simply flee to a more competitive jurisdiction which may be only tens of miles away and the standard of living in the small state will plummet. A large state, however, whose jurisdiction covers a larger territory and possesses access to a larger number of domestic resources has no such incentive to keep its tax and regulatory burdens to the minimum. With more domestic wealth and resources available and with the threat of capital fleeing for foreign shores thousands of miles away minimised, large states are free to increase their tax and regulatory predations to a much higher degree than smaller states. One of the supposed benefits of the EU is the so-called common market – the notion that goods and workers may move freely under a single tax and regulatory code. Yet any benefits achieved by having to deal with a single code are likely to be outweighed by its gargantuan size whereas a myriad of small and trifling tax and regulatory codes in a world of greater state division is likely to be a better condition for promoting trade and prosperity. Indeed, former UKIP/Independent MEP Godfrey Bloom has referred to the EU as a “customs union” rather than a market union – in other words, a single bureaucracy rather than a single market, a chance for the state to stamp out the irritating competition between states which forces them to keep their tax and regulatory rates low (as demonstrated recently in the EU’s disagreement over the rate of tax Apple had agreed to pay to the Irish government) and replace it instead with a giant socialistic paradise of government control. Instead of emphasising the “unionisation” of tax rules and regulations, those who wish to encourage economic prosperity should instead concentrate on reducing them – and the only way to do this is to make the state entities which impose them smaller and weaker, not bigger and stronger.

The argument for the “unity” and the consolidation of states becomes even more absurd when we consider the desire to preserve peace and prevent war. Murders are committed by murderers; rapes are committed by rapists; thefts are committed by thieves. If we want to minimise the effects of murders, rapes and thefts then it is obvious that the last thing we want is for all of the murderers, rapists and thieves to join together under the banner of “unity” so they are free to combine their powers to murder, rape and steal to a greater degree with increasing ingenuity. Similarly, wars are started by states and are fought between states. Therefore, if we wish to minimise wars and their effects then it follows that we need to make states smaller and weaker; it makes no sense whatsoever to make them bigger and stronger. The argument that unifying states is likely to prevent wars seems to rest on the assumption that government is the glue that holds society together and it is in fact all of the people whom they govern who are the cause of endless conflict. Thus a bigger and powerful government is able to “unite” all of these people and stop them from fighting each other. Nothing could be further from the truth. Apart from the fact that, as libertarians, we know that the state’s dependence upon force and violence for its wellbeing renders it an institution that is bound to inflict rather than prevent conflict, bigger and more powerful states are the enablers of bigger and more destructive conflicts rather than our salvagers from them. Private actors and institutions are necessarily splintered, decentralised and reliant upon voluntary trade for their sustenance. Tiny states have equally tiny tax bases from which they can command a very limited number of resources. The ability of such persons and institutions to start and sustain wars is extremely limited. Large states, on the other hand, are vast concentrations of wealth and power which not only have enormous tax bases from which to draw the means to fund eminently more destructive firepower but the advent of central banking – another creature of centralisation and “unity” – has allowed large states to fund their conflicts through monetary inflation rather than through demanding their citizens to cough up directly. So does anyone sensibly argue that private actors and small states would achieve the level of carnage and destruction that the large and powerful belligerents managed to reach in the two world wars? Does anyone believe that a decentralised world of small states and private institutions would have had the ability to force us to endure a generation and a half of potential nuclear terror during the cold war as the vast territories of the US and the Soviet Union managed to do? The most spectacular terrorist atrocity (i.e. an attack by non-state actors) of the past generation – the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 – killed just fewer than 3000 people, a figure which, while undoubtedly tragic, stands in the shadow of the more than 1 million Iraqis who have died as a result of the US invasion of their country. There would, of course, be fewer states left to fight each other in a world of consolidated, centralised states. However, this completely ignores the fact that the states that remain are armed with a destructive ability far superior to any minor state or territory – and especially compared to any private criminal. Any conflicts in a decentralised world would be localised to small pinpoints on the world map, affecting, at most, a few thousand people and, with the participants lacking the resources to continue fighting and disrupting trade for too long, would probably be over in weeks if not days. Contrast this to the situation in which we languish today where the ridiculous cult of interventionism and “collective security” – another banner of “unity” – forces all such local conflicts to be escalated into drawn out, global catastrophes, as the forays into Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria have demonstrated. It is clear that if we wish to preserve peace and prevent war then we need to prevent the institutions that start and fight wars – states – from becoming too big and powerful.

On a related note, there is a distinct air of utopianism in the minds of the centralisers and consolidators when it comes to the issue of preserving peace. War and conflict are doubtless terrible things and we would have a much better world if they did not exist. However, it is also true that, for as long as humans have walked the earth, individuals and institutions have run into conflicts with each other and that these conflicts have been escalated into violence. This is just human nature. Unwittingly, in trying to prevent all war everywhere and at any time by “unifying us” under the yoke of bigger and larger states, the advocates of such an approach have, instead, served to escalate the size and duration of wars and vastly magnify their destructive capabilities. The more sensible approach, we would suggest, is to acknowledge that war and conflict will always exist and to recognise that a superior social system will never eliminate these aspects of humanity entirely, just as in the same way libertarians do not expect a free market in private defence and security to ever completely eradicate murder, rape and theft. Our task instead is to find ways to reduce the frequency, duration and potency of these awful things as much as possible. When it comes to war only cutting the potential belligerents down to size and reducing their ability to wage destructive wars in the first place is likely to achieve this.

As we have seen, the liberating effects of decentralisation owe themselves to the relative weakness of deconsolidated and splintered states and state institutions. However, these liberating effects do not arise out of the smallness of the states and state institutions per se. Rather it is because the individual person becomes stronger relative to an institution the more decentralised and localised that institution is. Within his own immediate family, which may consist of only half a dozen people, an individual person’s needs and views are likely to be highly influential upon the other members of the family. They will attempt to provide for and accommodate these views and needs as an active part of their lives simply because the individual is close to them both physically and emotionally. An individual will have a little less influence in his immediate community or on a civil or parish council, where there are more people involved and few of them will be as familiar with him as his immediate family. However he would clearly have more influence in such a circle than in an entire town or city. And once, of course, we get to the level of an entire country such as Great Britain, a diverse nation of various economic, social and ethnic backgrounds, a single person’s lonely vote in, say, a general election becomes a drop in the ocean along with all of the other c. 45 million votes that are eligible to be cast. And if a country such as Britain was to be absorbed into a superstate such as the EU an individual may be drowned out by a chorus of 500 million other voices. The larger an institution becomes then the more its ability to focus on the “micro” issues that really affect people’s lives is progressively diminished and is replaced by a concentration on “macro” or global issues, the successful tackling of which is determined not by the wellbeing of individual people but, rather, by the measurement of aggregated statistics. So whereas, say, a family will care about whether Dad has a job that he enjoys and pays enough to feed and house the family or whether Grandma can get her hip operation in a hospital local enough for her to travel to, large state governments will instead care about GDP and the size of hospital waiting lists. Whereas a local council might focus on whether there is a sufficient bus service to a small community or whether a particular street is clear of litter, large governments, instead, have transport and environmental policies. Who in the bureaucracy is likely to care whether these policies might overlook the specific needs of one community or street some hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the capital? More local institutions are also likely to be populated more homogenously, with each person experiencing relatively similar priorities and holding a relatively similar worldview. Thus the ability to induce empathy between those who lead and those who are led is much more likely and, indeed, may produce more of a situation of symbiosis, or a sense of “working together” to further common goals as opposed to the “command and follow” routine of large states. In other words, even though a particular institution may still function officially through the methods of power and force, the smaller and more localised it is then the more likely such an institution will approach the individual and his needs in a voluntary and peaceful manner – or at least relatively so compared to much larger, faceless state institutions. Even the socialisation of property – considered to be the antithesis of libertarians, or at least right-leaning libertarians – is less likely to be a problem in, say, a small, voluntary commune where all of the commune’s members can air their views as to how their collective resources should be put to use and where all the members are likely to share a common motivation and purpose. Yet a similar exercise on a nationwide scale has always proven to be a disaster – not to mention, of course, that is easier for someone to leave a small commune than it was to leave, say, the Soviet Union.

It is important to realise that decentralisation is not necessarily about breaking every institution down into its smallest possible parts just for the sake of it. There is nothing wrong with large entities or institutions if such sizes generate advantages that could not otherwise be attained. Rather, the primary purpose of decentralisation is to devolve decision making authority (or what might be called “sovereignty”) to its the lowest possible level and that the closer this is to the individual then the more liberating the decentralising effect will be. So there is nothing wrong with lots of individuals or small institutions deciding to form a large institution to achieve a common purpose. This is precisely what individuals do when they form companies and joint enterprises. Whatever criticism we might hurl at the inadequacy of corporate governance and executive dominance, it is still basically the case that the individual shareholder of such an entity can liquidate his position if he wishes to disassociate himself from the institution. Thus the ultimate fate of the institution is dependent upon the willingness of individuals to continue its existence rather than upon its own volition. When, however, such an institution, which may originally have been organised voluntarily, becomes the ultimate decision making authority – like the modern state has become – and is able to prevent its component parts from exercising any significant autonomous power that would seal its fate, then the anti-liberating effects of consolidation and centralisation will be felt. This has been the case with the United States which, having started off as an association of small, independent, sovereign states has become, at least since the American Civil War, a compulsory union with the power concentrated in Washington DC rather than in the state capitals.

Decentralisation cannot depend solely upon formal, constitutional arrangements or treaties and it is naïve to argue that such set ups are adequate. What matters is where the de facto ability to enforce decision making power lies. An individual shareholder has de facto power over a company, for instance, because a court will enforce the sale of his shares and whatever other rights he may have. Technically, the individual member states of the EU remain wholly sovereign nations and, indeed, are so at this present time – the perceived loss of sovereignty of which its citizens complain has come in part from the fact that the politicians of the individual state governments have been happy to haemorrhage more and more powers to Brussels that override the individual, local needs of each country. However, if all of the military, policing and judicial might of the combined EU member states was to be consolidated in Brussels – which is, of course, the eventual aim of the super-statists – then it would be the case that no individual member state would retain the ability to enforce its sovereignty over the larger entity. Hence, it was a good thing for the UK to vote to leave the EU before such a consolidation occurred. What matters for the process of decentralisation and its liberating effects, therefore, is that any legal or enforcement system must be able to give effect to the decision making authority of smaller and smaller institutions. Therefore, large, standing armies, and consolidated police forces and judicial systems run from vast buildings in the capitals of large states, such as the Pentagon in Washington DC, are the biggest fears for those of us who wish to achieve a world of liberty – and with it, a world of peace and prosperity.


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The Nature and Origin of Rights, Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Myth of Overpopulation

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Overpopulation, either locally or globally, is often blamed on a number of apparent problems from the shortage of particular (usually “essential”) resources all the way up to the outright poverty of entire continents. Although few governments, most notably the Chinese, have enacted any strict policies in order to control their populations (except with regards to immigration), factoids such as the allegation that, if every single human wanted to enjoy a Western lifestyle we would need something like a dozen earths, attempt to create an unwarranted degree of hysteria.

The myth of overpopulation rests on the belief that humanity is akin to some kind of cancer which, as it grows exponentially, devours a fixed or arithmetically growing pool of resources that must be shared between everyone who has been unfortunate enough to have been born. This would have been the case in a hand-to-mouth society that preceded capitalism and the division of labour. There was effectively no production and the birth of each individual person constituted merely another mouth to feed. In other words, an increase in population led to an increase in demand for consumption without any corresponding increase in production, thus putting pressure on the existing stock of resources that had to be shared by everyone. Nevertheless, when it comes to shortages of goods in local markets today we can surmise that even if there was a fixed or otherwise relatively limited pool of resources that everyone had to share we couldn’t pin the blame for shortages on such a fact. In a free society, a particular good might be very expensive but it should never be the case that we cannot find anything. As the population increases the price of resources would rise and thus choke off demand for the least valuable uses. Shortages, rather, are always the result of government price controls that try to create the illusion of abundance without the reality, decimating the current supply and obliterating any incentive to produce more. That aside, however, the blatant reality for a capitalist society marked by the division of labour is that there is not a fixed or arithmetically growing pool of wealth and resources, and that the whole purpose of such a society is to grow, exponentially, the amount of wealth that is available. Indeed, as we shall see, humanity has succeeded in this endeavour to only a fraction of its capacity.

When the first human being trod the virgin soil of the earth, he found himself in a situation of almost unrelenting poverty. Mother Nature, as anyone trapped for an extended period of time in the wilderness has discovered, is far from a kind host, providing very little (except air to breathe and fruit on wild trees) by way of resources that can be consumed immediately for very little effort. Yet all of the matter contained in every resource that we enjoy today – buildings, cars, refrigerators, televisions, computers, clothing, medicines, and so – was, give or take a little, right there at the beginning of the world’s existence. Strictly speaking, no human being has ever created anything – rather he has merely transformed matter from one thing into another. So why, if all this matter was there from the very start, weren’t these wonderful things available to our first human? The reason is, of course, that a human must apply his labour in order to change the matter available in the world into useful resources that fulfil his ends. Yet the work of one man with his unaided body alone was not sufficient to create all of the wonderful things that we enjoy today. Indeed, it might take a single human being an entire day to hunt or catch enough fish for just one meal before the process must be repeated the following day. How can this be limitation be overcome?

The first answer is quite simply the very bugbear that is complained about – an increased population. A greater number of humans can together lift and carry a far greater amount than one man alone. Several or many men building a house would accomplish the task in a far shorter time than one man alone. More importantly, however, the widening of the division of labour as the population grows ensures that production stays ahead of population growth. Additional humans constitute an additional demand for consumption – ten humans may require ten houses whereas one human would require only one. But the fact that these men are also producers means that each can now fill his day by specialising in a particular task. One man, devoid of the ability to specialise, may take a year to build one house and he would have to undertake every single activity related to the building work on his own. With ten men, however, two may specialise in lumber felling, another two in transport, some in building, and the task of one the men may be solely to produce food and other supplies for the men doing direct work on the houses. The result of this is a greater degree and concentration of knowledge and an increased perfection of technique and expertise in each task. The resulting time saving means that, whereas one man would take one year to build one house, ten men would less than one year to build ten houses. Thus the rate of house building overtakes the rate of the increase in population. We therefore see that the quantity of labour has a marked effect on the accumulation of wealth and the transformation of matter into useful economic resources, provided that a society is distinguished by capitalism and the division of labour. To further emphasise this point, it is the twin effect of the consumption demand of the additional people coupled with the fact that these people are also producers that makes an ever increasing widening of the division of labour possible. If ten houses have to be produced then it might not be possible for one man to concentrate on any single task in order to fill his day; he might have to work in installing the wiring, the plumbing and the wallpaper. If one hundred houses have to be built then he might be able to concentrate on plumbing alone. If one thousand houses are built then he might be able to specialise on plumbing just bathrooms whereas someone else works on plumbing kitchens, for instance. The ever increasing volume of demand from an increasing population therefore begats an ever increasing division of labour when that population is put to work, and with it come all the benefits of specialisation and expertise.

Second, although it is flexible, the human body is a relatively weak and feeble creature, capable of moving and lifting only a tiny amount of matter at any one time. Regardless, therefore, of the quantity of labour available we can see that fifty men carrying sacks on their back would fail to transport as many goods in as short a space of time as, say, a railway locomotive hauling some wagons. The power of labour is therefore a further limiting factor on the number of resources that can be enjoyed. This power can only be increased by accumulating ever greater amounts of capital. All such goods – machines, tools, vehicles, and so on – are, fundamentally, merely extensions of the human body that enable its labour to accomplish more than it otherwise would. A man with an axe can fell a greater a number of trees than a man whose body is unaided by this implement. For centuries, humans could not labour to extract oil from the ground and refine it into petroleum. Yet with the capital available to construct drilling apparatus, oil rigs and refineries this is no longer the case. Indeed, most direct labour today is not concerned with the production of consumption goods at all. Rather, it is devoted to the production, augmentation and improvement of capital goods. In short, it is directed towards increasing the power of labour.

What we begin to see, therefore, is that it is not necessarily the scarcity of resources burdened by an ever increasing population that is the real obstacle to the growth of wealth and economic progress; rather, it is the scarcity of labour and the power of that labour as represented by the stock of capital goods which serve to enhance it. Goods are, to be sure, the original source of scarcity. We apply our labour only because the available quantity of a given resource exists in insufficient supply relative to the ends to which it could be devoted. Yet the power of our labour is a significant compounding factor on the degree of scarcity that we must endure. My body may only have enough capability in order to fetch a few buckets of water from a nearby stream – yet more than three quarters of the globe is covered in water. It is because the power of my labour is relatively weak that most of this water is either too far away or of insufficient quality to serve me any practical end. Only be improving the power of my labour – by being able to move greater distances, lift heavier volumes and develop processes of purification – could I hope to enjoy more water.

Such a circumstance is not limited to such a clearly abundant resource such as water. The entire world, right from the depths of the core of the Earth all the way up to the stratosphere is densely packed with matter. Our labour has only ever been able to harness a mere fraction of these resources, mostly skimmed from the Earth’s crust. As time goes on however, as population increases and with it capital accumulation and the widening of the division of labour, we harness the ability to tap into more and more of these resources. Hence, mines and oil fields that were once too costly to drill are now drilled (and, indeed, are more productive than the most productive fields of yesteryear); such mines could eventually reach depths of miles rather feet; and valuable elements can now be extracted from more complex ores. There is no reason to believe that this process cannot continue. Even today, the sea contains traces of elements such as gold which, in their totality, amount to a far greater quantity than all of that ever mined from beneath the land – 20 million tons compared to 175,000 tons respectively. Yet our labour is insufficient to take advantage of this fact. Indeed the sea remains one of the greatest untapped resources available to us. Unlike private land settlement which led to a prosperous agriculture and exploitation of the land, government has pretty much closed off areas of the sea to the possibility of settlement, preventing the development of a full-fledged aquaculture and robbing us of the ability to exploit this wonderful gift of nature.

It is for this reason – the increasing power of labour – that all predictions of resource depletion as a result of overpopulation (not to mention the ridiculousness of disingenuous “facts” such as the allegation that twelve earths are required to give everyone a Western lifestyle) – have failed. In the well known Ehrlich-Simon wager, for instance, economist Julian Simon made a bet in 1980 with biologist Paul Ehrlich that the price of five metals of Ehrlich’s choosing would have declined in price ten years later – indicating increasing availability of resources rather than increasing scarcity. Simon won the bet outright, in spite of a population increase of 800 million during that decade. Other peddlers of the overpopulation thesis, such as Albert Allen Bartlett, have labelled the views presented here as “cornucopian” or “the new flat earth” – mythical, whimsical and not based on any serious scientific understanding. What these people share in common is that they simply do not account for the future economic viability of production from what are currently viewed as uneconomic resources. For the clear result is that as population has increased we have been able to apply more labour with a greater power of that labour to a greater number of the world’s resources in ways that we were not able to do before. The ultimate goal, needless to say, would be something akin to molecular engineering – the ability to transform worthless matter such as dirt, trash or even air – into valuable resources. The futuristic “replicators” on TV shows such as Star Trek can apparently conjure goods such as a fully cooked meal out of thin air; yet the science behind would not be too difficult to imagine. We have already harnessed the ability to transform matter into energy through processes such as combustion. We can envisage that one day we could do the reverse and transform energy into matter. An inedible sack of coal could end up as a fabulous meal on your dining table.

Overpopulation does, however, give the appearance of being a problem as a result of government interference. Above we noted above, additional consumption demand represented by an increasing population serves in increase wealth provided that the additional population are also producers and therefore will act so as to widen the division of labour and the accumulation of capital. Yet the actions of government serve to swell consumption while choking off production. Pressure on resources and industries therefore arises from government control of these things. Britain’s decrepit healthcare, energy and transport systems are bursting at the seams as a result of demand and increasing costs, a direct result of inefficiency combined with prices that are too low which serve to swell consumption demand in these industries. Government pays its citizens to produce babies and thus increase the population, while an increasing immigrant population today is induced not by the freedom to pursue one’s own goals and to better one’s own life for oneself through hard work and productivity, but, rather, by generous welfare states. All of this causes a rising population that contributes to consumption but very little by way of production. In other words, if you set up the economic system to make consumption as care free as possible and production as costly as it could be then the excess of consumption and a deficit of production will give the illusion of overpopulation. Government therefore begins to look on its citizens as pests and parasites, wanton consumers of precious resources that are desperately running out. Yet the problem is not with resources; rather the problem is with the ability of the government to swell the ranks of consumers and its inability to increase the power of labour, together with its incessant stifling of anyone else who tries to do so. Every additional person who is born in the world is another mouth to feed, another person who will demand the consumption of resources. Yet that person could also be a producer who will widen the division of labour and help to grow the capital stock. Government succeeds only in breeding the consumer in a man while totally destroying in him the producer.

Turning to a related aspect, the fact that whole continents, such as Africa, are mired in poverty has nothing to do with the allegation that the richer countries refuse to “share” their wealth. If the richer countries did not have their wealth, it would not mean that poorer countries would have more – the wealth simply would not have been produced, period. Indeed, whatever wealth that does exist in poor places is often the result of Western enterprise or outright gift. These places do not lack resources; rather, they lack the institutions of private property and voluntary exchange that enable capitalism and the division of labour to flourish, and with them a greater command of labour over resources. Indeed, many of these countries are proceeding down the wrong path by setting up welfare states, trade unions and Keynesian economic (mis)management overseen by democratic institutions which are, of course, the very things that are destroying the standard of living in the West. The West achieved its greatest accomplishments in a pre-democratic, pre-welfare state and pre-union age before Marxism and socialism succeeded in leading the onslaught against capitalism and private property.

What we can see, therefore, is that overpopulation is not a fundamental economic problem. It is only an apparent problem in a society that is hampered by government intervention and the stifling of private property rights, the division of labour and capital accumulation. However, even if population started to put pressure on resources when, in a capitalist society, we reached the (unlikely) point where we were regularly turning over all of the matter in existence to meet our ends – we would still conclude that this would not be a problem worthy of any serious attention. Or at the very least, it would certainly not be a problem that merited any centralised, government control. For as population increases relative to the supply of resources, the latter become more expensive. The cost of raising a child therefore itself becomes prohibitively more expense and people would need to choose between devoting ever more valuable resources to themselves or to their children. Indeed one of the first of such resources to exert this pressure may well be land, assuming we have not, by then, invented the ability to produce more of it artificially. We could, of course, build upwards and end up living in skyscrapers but people may prefer to breed less and have more land available to themselves rather than to their children. Such choices may serve to relieve, naturally, any exponential growth in population figures. Even if, though, people desired to keep on having more children it would only indicate that they prefer the company of children to enjoying more resources for themselves. There is no objective standard by which to complain about the result of such a choice. Nevertheless, even when it comes to the question of land, humanity is currently so far from this point that we hardly need to bother mentioning it, except to try and concede to the overpopulation thesis its best possible case.

The illusion of overpopulation is exacerbated today by a fundamentally antagonistic attitude from what Murray Rothbard called the “professional foes of humanity”, the environmentalist movement1. Apart from this movement’s interference in one the most crucial markets for capital accumulation – the production of energy – the fundamentals of their philosophy view the earth as inherently beautiful and sacred, and any of humanity’s attempts to exploit it as sacrilege. Such a view is radically anti-human and can only hold that the problem with the Earth is that there are too many of these stupid, dirty, polluting, and wantonly consuming human beings. Given the influence that this movement holds it is no small wonder that such thinking permeates into more mainstream views. That aside, however, we can conclude from what we have learnt here that humans need not fear increases in population. What they should fear, however, is their government turning additional people into spoon fed eaters with shackled hands – consumers who cannot produce. It is this fact that puts a very real pressure of resources. It is therefore not overpopulation that is the real problem but, rather, “over-government”.

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1Murray N Rothbard, Government and Hurricane Hugo: A Deadly Combination, Llewellyn H Rockwell Jr, (ed.), The Economics of Liberty, pp 136-40.

Utilitarian Arguments for Liberty

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Utilitarianism or some form of consequentialism has underpinned the ethical worldview of many libertarians past and present. Within the “Austrian” School we may cite Ludwig von Mises, F A Hayek and Henry Hazlitt as proponents of this approach, contrasting with the more rule-based or deontological approaches of, say, Murray N Rothbard and Hans Hermann Hoppe, and the objectivism of Ayn Rand.

This essay will seek to examine some utilitarian and consequentialist arguments in favour of liberty. In doing so we must bear in mind two aspects. First, not all utilitarian arguments are of the same ilk and vary from simple approaches of judging outputs resulting from a posited situation with interpersonal utility comparisons, all the way to more general and sophisticated treatments such as that of Mises and that of Rothbard in his noted article “Towards a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics”1. Here, therefore, we will compare these two utilitarian approaches towards liberty. Second, the adequacy of utilitarianism can be examined from the point of view of providing a moral bulwark for a world of liberty on the one hand and from the point of view of promoting such a world on the other; our treatment of it may be different in each circumstance because that which may be suitable to form the moral foundations of liberty may be not be the key aspect that we can emphasise when persuading the populace of the virtues of a libertarian society. Hence we must examine any utilitarian argument from both points of view.

We will begin, then, with the basic forms of consequentialism that look to measure the output of individual scenarios. Such an approach will often posit an emotive and hypothetical situation where one individual owns property and another individual will succumb to some kind of malady such as hunger, illness and ultimately death unless he gets his hands on that same property. A typical example is of a lost man wandering in the woods, cold, malnourished and in immediate need of food and shelter. He comes across a log cabin, of which someone else is clearly the first user/occupier. By peering through the window our lost man can see that it is full of food. Would it be ethical for him to break in to the cabin, use it as shelter, and/or eat some of the food without the permission of the first user?2

The rule-based approach to libertarianism would state that the lost man does not have a right to break into the cabin, use it as shelter and eat the food without the permission of the cabin’s first user (hereafter, the “owner”) as it is a clear breach of the non-aggression principle. However, a utilitarian or consequentialist may argue that while the cabin owner has a prima facie right to the ownership of the cabin and its contents the question should be answered by taking the approach that avoids the most harmful consequences – or, conversely, promotes the best consequences. In this particular situation, the loss of the food or shelter to the cabin’s owner would, apparently, not be a remarkable cost. Yet the denial of it to the lost man, starving and shivering in the open, would be tremendous, may be even as much as his life. We may warrant, therefore, that the starving man should be able to break into the cabin.

Is it possible for such a view to form a) the moral backbone for libertarianism and b) a persuasive argument in promoting a libertarian society? In answer to the first question, we must decide firmly in the negative. First, all of these scenarios, such as the starving man in the woods, are purely hypothetical situations to which we are expected to give hypothetical responses. However, ethical dilemmas do not arise in hypothetical situations; they arise in real situations where there are genuine conflicts over scarcity. Although such hypothetical situations could one day come about, the danger of entertaining them is that it can be worded in such a way as to provoke the answer most desirable to its proponent. Thus the die is already loaded in favour of the latter’s political philosophy. Walter Block comments on such an example provided by Harold Demsetz of the Law and Economics movement (which is basically a utilitarian approach to legal rights). Demsetz’s scenario is that of “Austrian Pure Snow Trees”, which are owned by a religious sect. An ingredient from these trees happens to be the only cure for cancer, but the religious sect will not allow them to be used for that purpose, reserving them instead for religious worship. Demsetz challenges whether it is really “evil and vicious” to override the private property rights of the religious sect so that cancer sufferers can benefit from the trees’ curative ingredient. Block responds at length:

Given [Demsetz’s] highly emotional example, it is indeed hard to resist the notion that it would be preferable if the trees were used as a cancer cure.

Emotionalism can be a double edged sword, however. As long as our intuitive imagination has been unleashed by Demsetz in this creative way, why not push the envelope a bit? Consider, then, the case where the views of this religious sect are absolutely correct! That is, if the trees are torn down for so idolatrous and unimportant a purpose as curing cancer, then we’ll all be consigned to Hell forever. Wouldn’t it then be “intuitively appealing” to allow the islanders to continue their ownership of these trees?

Demsetz, in taking the opposite position, is acting as if the cult is erroneous in its religious beliefs. But assume for the moment the “cultists” to be correct in their world view. It would then be justified – according to Demsetz – not only to protect them from the onslaught of the cancer victims, but to seize the assets of the latter if this would in any way help the former. Suppose, that is, that there was a cancer cure, owned, now, by the victims of this dread disease, but that for some reason the worshippers determined that this material would help them in their efforts to contact the Deity. Then, according to the logic established by Demsetz, it would be appropriate public policy to forcibly transfer the cure to the control of the religious ”fanatics.” Surely Demsetz knows nothing-for certain that would render such a conclusion invalid.

[…]

Let us extend the Demsetzian argument in yet another dimension. Suppose that it was not the islanders’ trees that could cure cancer, but rather their hearts. That is, the only way to save the sufferers from this disease would be to kill, not the Austrian Pure Snow Trees, but their owners, the members of this religious sect, and then to take their hearts, chop them up, and feed them to cancer victims. Would Demsetz (“emotionally”) support this “modest proposal” to do just that?

[…]

Ultimately, there are only two ways of settling such problems. All others are merely combinations and permutations of these two. On the one hand, there is a provisional or instrumental property rights system. Here, holdings are secure only as long as no one can come up with a plausible reason for taking them away by force. Under this system, either dictators or majorities (or dictatorial majorities) hold the key to property rights. The difficulty is that there are no moral principles which can be adduced to derive any decisions. Presumably, utility or wealth or income maximization is the goal; but due to the utter impossibility of interpersonal comparisons of utility, this criterion reduces to arbitrariness. On the other hand is a thoroughgoing and secure property rights system. Here, one owns one’s possessions “for keeps.” The only problem here is the temptation to overthrow the system in order to achieve some vast gain, such as the cure for cancer. Demsetz’s example is so forceful by virtue of the fact that he expects his readers will consider a cure for cancer to be more valuable than a pagan rite – he knows it is likely they will engage in interpersonal comparisons of utility. But these temptations are easily resisted as they are inevitably imaginary and artificially constructed. We have yet to be presented with a real world example where there is a clear cut case for massive property rights violations.

[…]

Hypothetical arguments have their undoubted philosophical use. [However], the point being made here[…]is that [deontological] libertarian rules are only inconsistent with broad based utilitarian concerns in the imagination, not in reality.

Note how far from reality Demsetz must remove himself in order to manufacture an example that is intuitively consonant with his support for what in any other context would be considered murder (hearts) or theft (trees) or slavery-kidnapping (draft).

[…]

In very sharp contrast indeed, resort need not be made of fanciful examples to defend the libertarian vision.3

Imaginary scenarios, then, are always worded so that the listener is encouraged to empathise emotionally with the economically deprived while completely ignoring the point of view of the property owner, or at least making the latter look frivolous and capricious. Such a rhetorical trick applies not only to specific scenarios but also to entire political treatises. How much, for example, do the imaginary, hypothetical situations of the original position and the veil of ignorance in John Rawls A Theory of Justice – which do not exist in the real world – demand the very answer that the author desires?

Second, the purpose of ethics is to resolve or otherwise avoid conflicts that arise from the result of physical scarcity. Rule-based approaches to liberty that provide physical demarcations to denote property rights permit this to a high degree of certainty in any given situation as the boundaries of permissible action are constructed objectively. Because all valuations through action result in physical changes to physical goods, objective evidence of these changes – i.e. homesteading, production, etc. – give an immediate cue to indicate to a latecomer that the property may not be touched4. Consequentialist approaches, however, cannot rely on objective, physical demarcations to denote property rights; rather, they rely upon the measurement of competing subjective values. This renders the resolution of conflicts and conflict avoidance much more difficult. The question the lost man faces is what am I permitted to do right now? If moral boundaries are based upon hypothetical and changing values and tastes then this question cannot be answered. He may assume that the cabin owner values the cabin and its stock of food less than he does, but he has neither evidence nor proof of this. Indeed the cabin owner isn’t even there to ask. And whether the cabin owner values it less may change from day to day. Yesterday, the cabin owner might not have valued these resources very highly at all; today, however, what if the cabin owner has himself suffered an accident and requires the shelter and food, which he believes to be in secure possession, and is now under threat from the wanton consumption by the lost man? What if the cabin owner’s life is threatened by the loss of food and shelter? Indeed, what if he had purchased the cabin as insurance against that very possibility? There is, therefore, no way of making a rational decision ex ante.

Third, if ethical determinations cannot be made ex ante then it follows that a decision must be made ex post. In other words, the lost man could take a chance by breaking into the shelter and then battle out the question of whether he was right to have done so later through litigation or a settlement process. It is for this reason that utilitarian forms of libertarianism tend to be minarchical rather than anarchical. Hence, this basic form of utilitarianism provokes the very monolithic state apparatus that libertarians should be opposing, and puts in its hands a tool – interpersonal utility comparisons – with which to make its decisions, a tool that is ridiculously uncertain and malleable5. To be sure, it might be possible for individuals to form an empathetic judgment based on interpersonal utility comparisons in an individual situation. But it does not follow from that possibility that a government or a court could make a rigorous determination when passing legislation or enunciating judgments that affect the lives of millions of people in multitudes of different situations6.

Fourth, at the heart of many consequentialist approaches is a fundamental misunderstanding as to what the concepts of “liberty” and “freedom” actually mean. If one views them as meaning freedom from want, from hunger, from the elements and so on then one is naturally led to a consequentialist approach. However, properly considered, liberty is a sociological concept that applies to the relationship between each individual human being. A person is free if he can live his life without the physical interference of his person and property by others. Whether he is hungry, cold, or naked, on the other hand, concerns his relationship not with other human beings but, rather, with nature. This can only resolved not by extending his “freedom” forcibly into the territory of others but by gaining power over nature – in short, by productivity. Any number of theoreticians can spill oceans of ink in trying to determine whether or how the wealth of the cabin owner should be distributed to the lost man in the woods. Yet wouldn’t it be so much better if society was so wealthy that the lost man possessed the wherewithal to prevent himself from being in such a wandering state in the first place? What if the man had an inexpensive GPS system; compacted supplies of food in pill/tablet form that could sustain him for weeks or months; emergency communication devices that would alert a private protection agency to his whereabouts? Yet it is precisely such productivity that is threatened by consequentialist determinations of property rights. Strong private property rights that remain certain following original appropriation or voluntary transfer promote economic growth by encouraging saving, long term planning and low time preference. Uncertain or vague private property rights do the exact opposite. If it is possible that your property will be snaffled in an instant by someone who allegedly “values” it more than you do then the attractiveness of using the good for saving and investment is lowered. You will be willing to take fewer risks and will work less hard with the good if you know that the fruit of your efforts might be confiscated in the blinking of an eye. At worst, such weak property rights encourage immediate consumption as soon as you get your hands on any good at all. That way, in most cases it will no longer exist for someone to take it away again at a later date.

Turning now to our next question, would such basic consequentialism serve in any way to persuade people of the virtues of a libertarian society? Again we have to answer firmly in the negative. We must remember that the primary preoccupation of libertarianism is with the evil and oppressive monolith known as the state. This is the entity that truly destroys freedom; it confiscates our income to fund its profligate spending; forces us to use its worthless paper money that it prints incessantly to fuel its endless foreign wars; destroys families and fuels poverty and dependency with the massive welfare state; regulates what we can do with our bodies, what we can say with our own mouths, where we can set up business, whom we may employ in that business and on what terms. Government is estimated to have killed approximately 262 million people outside of warfare during the twentieth century; private affronts to liberty – even such horrendous crimes such as murder and rape – pale in comparison to this. The US government’s so-called war on terror, at a cost of several trillion dollars, has killed an estimated 1.3m Iraqis, Afghanistanians and Pakistanis in its first ten years, even though more Americans are killed by falling televisions than by terrorist attacks. The greatest insult has to be that it is this miniscule private crime that supposedly constitutes the very justification for the state and its monopolisation of security and litigation. Although there is no shortage of nobility in striving to apply justice in every individual case, libertarians must fry the biggest fish and not spend their time debating whether a lost man breaking into a cabin is or is not an affront to liberty. When attempting to promote liberty, let us confront the very real ogre of the state rather than dwelling in imaginary scenarios that will make no practical difference to people’s everyday lives. Furthermore, as we mentioned above, if justice depends on interpersonal utility comparisons in individual cases, then it craves for the existence of a compulsory referee in the form of the state, the very thing that destroys liberty entirely. We must conclude then that this basic form of utilitarianism, which seeks to evaluate outputs from specific situations, must fail on all accounts as an argument in favour of liberty.

Let us now turn towards a second conception of utilitarianism, the more sophisticated approach adopted by such eminent theoreticians as Ludwig von Mises. The tenor of this approach is that voluntary exchange under the division of labour – i.e. the market – is essential for the survival and flourishing of every individual human being; every human is so interdependent upon every other that to plump for anything else would result in the rapid disintegration of the standard of living or, at worst, certain death. Hence this form of utilitarianism concentrates on the virtues of the market itself rather than looking to the justice of individual situations. Mises, and others who follow this approach, therefore avoid any complications arising by way of interpersonal utility comparisons.

It is important to realise that this argument is predicated upon a few other important Misesian insights. First is that when pondering the economic organisation of society only two extremes are possible – the free market or total socialism. As Mises so effectively argued, any “interventionist” point or “mixed economy” approach in between these two extremes will cause effects that must either lead to abandonment of the intervention on the one hand or to total control on the other. One must therefore choose between one or the other and cannot favour anything in between. By demonstrating the economic impossibility and the catastrophic consequences of full socialism Mises demonstrates the complete lack of basis for making a choice that favours full government control. The only rational option, therefore, is the unfettered free market. Second, and related to this theme, Mises was of the view that “society” is synonymous with social co-operation under the division of labour. As he says in Human Action:

A society that chooses between capitalism and socialism does not choose between two social systems; it chooses between social cooperation and the disintegration of society. Socialism is not an alternative to capitalism; it is an alternative to any system under which men can live as human beings.7

Following this line of thinking, questions such as “how to organise society” strike one as absurd when society itself is already a form of organisation. We do not have the choice of “picking” from an array of options when it comes to forming a society. Either there is social co-operation under the division of labour and society exists; or there is an atomistic hand-to-mouth existence and society does not exist. Any person, therefore, who genuinely wishes to promote a theory of society cannot rationally opt for any kind of socialism and, a fortiori, any kind of interventionism8.

How useful is this approach for forming a moral backbone for libertarianism? At first, this approach seems remarkably more plausible than the basic form of consequentialism that we just discussed. By looking at the general consequences of the market we do not get caught up in traps such as interpersonal utility comparisons and we have a strong counter-argument against anyone who proposes a collectivist theory of social organisation. Moreover, the fact that the marketplace serves to improve the material wellbeing of every individual human being lends it a heavy degree of moral weight. If the free market was to spread misery and discontent through perpetuating a lower standard of living we would surely be willing to lend it less moral credence. Unfortunately, however, this utilitarian approach lacks the very thing to which the basic form of consequentialism was far too devoted – a rigorous passion for the justice rather than simply for the utility of private property rights.

First, although it provides a rhetorical defence against those who profess their collectivist aspirations to be for the benefit of society, it will never provide a defence against megalomaniacs who are content to milk everyone else for all they are worth. In other words, it will never provide an answer to those who believe society exists to serve them alone and that they are entitled to use other people in any way they see fit. The existence of such megalomania should not be dismissed lightly. Simply because we associate it more with caligulan monarchs and despots of times gone by does not mean to say that our democratic structures are impervious to it. Many libertarians are vocal opponents of what they see as “US exceptionalism” – the idea that the US government can pretty much do whatever it pleases in foreign affairs and standards that apply to a foreign government do not apply to the US. How can this be described as anything except megalomania?

Second, the logical effects of the socialisation of society – the total collapse of the division of labour and the complete decimation of the standard of living – can be gut wrenchingly long run effects. Society currently has plenty of capital that can be consumed and afford a comfortable, even luxurious living to any one individual. The Soviet Union took an agonising seventy years to die, a span of time that exceeds that of most individual’s adult lives. An advocate of socialism and socialisation is therefore not necessarily advocating his own certain death or relegation to poverty. He may be content to live like a king for the duration of his life and not care a whit if society became deeply impoverished long after he has dropped off of his mortal coil. Arguably this was the attitude inherent in Keynes’ oft-quoted quip “in the long run we are all dead”. As Murray Rothbard is supposed to have retorted, “Keynes died and we were left with the long run”. But such an attitude is provoked and enflamed by the fact that democratic government is a revolving door with officeholders required to endure repeated elections, endowing them a very short time in which to accomplish their goals. Every politician yearns for his day in the sun when he is lauded and praised as a great statesman, but he has to achieve this now, in the short run, before he loses an election. As long as he can reap the headlines and rewards during his tenure and, possibly, for the remainder of his life, who cares if his policies are ultimately destructive after he is long gone? It is for this reason that democratic governments are suffering from ever increasing and crippling debt as each generation of politicians seeks to shower its electorate with free goodies that only have to be paid for years after they have left office (or have died) and it is somebody else’s problem9. So too, could we suggest, that endless war has become the norm as each successive leader tries to demonstrate his Churchillian qualities and to elevate himself to the legendary, almost Godlike realms of the great warrior-statesman such as Lincoln and Roosevelt. Never mind that war ultimately is destructive; never mind that it destroys entire cities and societies; never mind that it kills, maims and otherwise ruins the lives of millions of innocent civilians. As long as the commander-in-chief can claim to have vanquished a cherry-picked foe in some distant country then his place as a saviour of civilisation is assured, at least in the meantime. So too do the manufacturers and profiteers of armaments display the same attitude. They know how evil and destructive war ultimately is; there is no shortage of literature espousing this fact. But they get to reap heavy profits now and to enhance their own lifestyles now. Why should they care about what happens in the long run?

Third, by resting its case on the general virtues of the market this kind of utilitarianism suggests that if some form of social organisation, other than the market, however unlikely, becomes feasible then private property rights could be legitimately overridden. In other words if some form of collectivism could sustain the division of labour and a standard of living equal to or exceeding that of the free market would the force behind government taxation, theft, murder then become legitimate? However, surely if such a world was to come about we would still argue that people have the right to self-ownership and the right to the ownership of goods in their possession as first user or through voluntary transfer? Of course, a person might choose to submit to the yoke of government planning if it affords him a higher standard of living than that of the free market, but this is a different kettle of fish as the submission is then purely voluntary. On its own, however, any ability of a system other than the free market to sustain a society is insufficient as a justification to override private property rights.

Fourth, this brand of utilitarianism may convey a sense of prospective justice – that which should happen concerning property rights in the future – but what does it have to say about retrospective justice? In short, how does utilitarianism know whether the existing structure of property rights is just? After all, the existing structure of ownership benefits a lot of thieves and plunderers that would need to be dealt with in the transition from a statist to a libertarian society. A libertarian steeped in natural law and Lockean homesteading theory would answer this question rather straightforwardly. Any current owner would have to demonstrate that his title derives either from original appropriation or through voluntary transfers in title. If it is not and someone who claims such a title comes forward then ownership must be yielded to the latter. A utilitarian, however, has a bit of a problem as his philosophy generally focuses on the benefit changes to the existing array of property titles to the current market participants. He could argue that, like the natural lawyer, all existing titles to property could be examined against competing claims and then either endorsed or rectified accordingly. However, because his theory is based on the efficacy of the market in developing the division of labour his case for requiring this is demonstrably weakened. Certainly theft and plunder disrupted the efficiency of the market in the past. However, wouldn’t a mass of re-appropriations to rectify ancient crimes undermine the efficacy of the market today, at least temporarily? Would it not be easier, from the point of view of efficiency, to just preserve all existing titles then let everyone go forward? Why compound a past disruption to the market with a new one? It is upon this basis that this brand of utilitarianism is criticised for preserving the status quo, for permitting, in the transmission to a libertarian world, the bureaucratic class to keep their hands on the loot, much like the oligarchy did in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To be sure, this argument against utilitarianism is not, in the view of the present author, as strong as some libertarians make it out to be. Nevertheless, utilitarianism does open itself up to the charge that there comes a point where stolen property should remain in the hands of the thieves (or their heirs) simply because the act of unwinding the theft would cause more disruption to the market than to not to do so, particularly if the property is heavily invested in an enterprise that provides substantial employment and is apparently productive. Moreover, while it is straightforward enough to justify voluntary trade in the marketplace as promoting the division of labour and the standard of living, we have to wonder whether the utilitarian can provide much of a justification for original appropriation – that is, for the first user of a good to retain it – with his utilitarian arguments alone. Original appropriation is of course the genesis of voluntary trade – we appropriate virgin goods with the intent to produce with them and trade them away for things we want in exchange, thus helping to overcome the fact that the world’s resources are not evenly distributed amongst different geographic regions. However, such a justification can only stand if one can also demonstrate that the originally appropriated property is previously ownerless and unvalued by other people, and is only recognised as scarce and valuable by the first user. The only possible such demonstration is that the first user was the one to “mix his labour with it”, whereas the actions of everyone else demonstrated no preference for that property. Hence all utilitarian arguments in favour of the free market, fundamentally, collapse into the Lockean homesteading theory anyway.

Having addressed the question of whether this form of utilitarianism can be a useful moral underpinning for libertarianism, let us turn now to whether it is useful as a persuasive tool for espousing the virtues of a free society. In this sphere, utilitarianism certainly fares much better. The heaviest gun in the arsenal of the utilitarian libertarian is the fact that living in an unfettered free society where government exists, at most, as a “night watchman”, limited to protecting private property rights of the individual, will produce manifold increases in the standard of living through a rise in real wage rates. It also has the virtue, in contrast to the basic form of consequentialism, of concentrating its focus on the very institution that is an anathema to freedom – the government – instead of getting bogged down in the minutiae of individual cases. Squarely, it is government that needs to withdraw itself from the marketplace and it is government that needs to stop meddling in economic affairs in order to bring about these wonderful consequences. Furthermore, every government minister promotes his programmes on the basis that they will serve to help at least some sector of society, if not everybody. The utilitarian, however, armed with a thorough understanding of economics, can easily demonstrate why the results must always be the very opposite of those intended and why the government interference will always, necessarily, create more harm than good when examined under the terms of its own justification. While, therefore, a given politician or promoter may have ulterior motives in proposing any programme – such as to benefit lobbyists, donors or other special interests – his public justification for the programme can be shown as shambolic. There may, of course, be some difficulty in disabusing people of the notion that the free market is a “sink-or-swim” society and there is also added problem of those who steadfastly refuse to try their hand in the marketplace for what might seem like a distant reward and prefer instead to yield to the siren song of government redistribution. To this, only a passionate plea for the justice of the market place can provide an answer.

Conclusion

George Reisman explains how an understanding of the consequences of free market economics has “powerful implications for ethics”:

It demonstrates exhaustively that in a division-of-labor, capitalist society, one man’s gain is not another man’s loss, that, indeed, it is actually other men’s gain — especially in the case of the building of great fortunes. In sum, economics demonstrates that the rational self-interests of all men are harmonious. In so doing, economics raises a leading voice against the traditional ethics of altruism and self-sacrifice. It presents society — a division-of-labor, capitalist society — not as an entity over and above the individual, to which he must sacrifice his interests, but as an indispensable means within which the individual can fulfill the ultimate ends of his own personal life and happiness.

A knowledge of economics is indispensable for anyone who seeks to understand his own place in the modern world and that of others. It is a powerful antidote to unfounded feelings of being the victim or perpetrator of “exploitation” and to all feelings of “alienation” based on the belief that the economic world is immoral, purposeless, or chaotic. Such unfounded feelings rest on an ignorance of economics.10

While, therefore, we must conclude that no form of utilitarianism provides an adequate, watertight moral backbone for libertarianism, which can only be furnished by demonstrating the justice inherent in private property rights and free exchange, we must also agree that we can never ignore the manifold benefits to every individual and the harmonious society that they create. Indeed, few people, publically, ever attempt to propose an ethical theory that does not create a society of peace and harmony. Thus a through understanding of the effects of the free market can provide a framework with which to refute competing theories on their own terms. Furthermore, few deontological libertarians omit to pepper their theories with demonstrations of the beneficial consequences of the marketplace. While, therefore, this essay has been generally critical of utilitarianism it is likely that it will always have a central place in libertarian theory.

1Reprinted in “Economic Controversies”, pp. 289-333. Rothbard is, however, keen to note that his reconstruction does not provide any plea for an ethical system, merely “conclusions to the framer of ethical judgments as part of the data for his ethical system”.

2Another example is the so-called runaway train that will hit five people if diverted onto one track or only one if diverted onto the second. Should the signalman switch the points to the second track to ensure that only the one person is killed?

3Walter Block, Ethics, Efficiency, Coasian Property Rights and Psychic Income: A Reply To Demsetz, The Review of Austrian Economics, Vol.8, No. 2 (1995) 61-125, at 76-84 (emphasis added, some footnotes omitted.

4Libertarian jurisprudence does, of course, have to determine precisely which physical acts result in which property rights. However, any difficulty is likely to remain only in borderline cases or cases where evidence of prior ownership is fleeting or difficult to apprehend and, in general, all persons should be able to determine in the majority of situations whether property is subject to a prior right and a third party referee would not be required to determine this.

5As a result it is also the case that consequentialists vary in their particular views concerning the justice of taxation, eminent domain, intellectual property, etc. on to a greater degree than rule-based libertarians.

6Ironically, the same argument based on interpersonal utility comparisons – that the wealthy value what they have less than the poor and that the latter “need” this wealth more than the rich do – is used by proponents of government welfare and redistribution. It is difficult to understand how an argument that can be used against a world of liberty can be used in favour of it.

7Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, p.676.

8It is upon this foundation that Mises’ examination of concrete economic policies, where he moves from the wertfrei into the world of value judgments – the effectiveness of the policies themselves from the point of view of those who promote them – is  based.

9Because the incessant tendency is now reaching a chronic level the ability to postpone the day of reckoning has become ever more difficult and most of the more recent glory-seekers are now living to reap what they sow. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan is a pertinent example.

10George Reisman, Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, p. 17.

Economic Myths #8 – Capitalism is Exploitative

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The myth that capitalism is exploitative – or rather, that capitalists, the private owners of the means of production, and entrepreneurs – exploit both workers and consumers is as old as the history of this political-economic system itself and has been a primary driving force behind the growth of the state and, indeed, of outright socialist and communist revolution. Although much watered down from those early days, the idea that there is some kind of antagonism between the capitalist “class” and the rest of us persists.

As “Austrian” economists we know, of course, that it is absolutely and undeniably true that any free and voluntary exchange, upon which capitalism and private property must rely, only takes place because each party expects to benefit from the transaction. This alone is sufficient scientific proof to dismiss any idea that capitalism exploits one party for the benefit of another. Nevertheless we should, of course, tackle directly the specific incarnations of this myth as they appear today.

The myth has its roots in the Marxian confusion of political castes with economic classes – the idea that the relationship between capitalists and workers, which is free and voluntary, was akin to that of king and subject, or landed aristocracy and peasant – relationships that were involuntary and subjected the masses to servitude. Caste systems were static and designed to keep people in their place; under conditions of free exchange, however, economic classes have a continually changing membership based upon one’s ability to serve consumers. This ability varies from person to person, of course, but nobody is legally prevented from becoming an entrepreneur and nobody, once they are a successful entrepreneur, has their wealth and status legally protected. A wealthy capitalist might find his fortune decimated when he loses this crucial ability to serve consumers and the latter turn to other suppliers for their wares; he may have to re-join the ranks of salaried employees if he is to make ends meet. On the other hand, an ordinary worker may see a gap in the market unnoticed by the current entrepreneurs of the day and set up a successful business accordingly. This does not mean say, of course, that political castes do not exist today. We can see quite clearly from bank bailouts that there are a distinct upper caste that is protected from its mistakes and is able to retain its wealth and status at the expense of the rest of us. Indeed all the similar injustices that did occur during the early history of capitalism were not owing to the capitalists’ reliance upon genuine private property and free exchange – rather, they used the power of the state to enforce their illegitimate property interests. The mercantilist corn laws, for instance, which artificially propped up the price of corn for the benefit of cereal producers are a good example from the early nineteenth century. Capitalism itself, however, does not produce these injustices.

Moving on to some more contemporary arguments, do businesses exploit the “needs” of consumers for whatever it is that the latter want? Do they withhold “vital” and “necessary” wares releasing them only at extortionate prices thinking only of their selfish greed for profits? The argument is ridiculous because all trade and exchange relies upon the desires of the trading parties – whether it is for food, housing, cars, computers, or trips to the cinema. The entrepreneurs in business exist to fulfil and satisfy, not exploit these needs. If they are able to charge high prices it is only because the supply, relative to demand, is low and has to be rationed to those who value the goods the most. This argument regarding exploitation usually surfaces today in one of two situations. The first is during sudden supply shocks or demand spikes that send prices soaring and allows suppliers to book large profits as they obviously paid for the inputs at much lower, wholesale prices. As these usually occur during times of emergency or crisis, aren’t the businesses exploiting the dire need of the consumers for such staples as water, canned food and fuel? Such an argument ignores the fact that it is not the businesses driving the demand – it is the other people who are willing to pay more to get their hands on the suddenly scarce items. The only options are to allow other entrants into the marketplace to bring more resources into the production of scarce goods and lower their price, which would satisfy everyone with more supply of those goods that are most needed in these crisis situations; or, to fix the prices of the wares below their market clearing level which would lead to guaranteed shortages. Needless to say, government always opts for the latter. The second situation that attracts criticism is when the entrepreneur is in the business of providing something “essential” such as energy or healthcare. Yet these businesses are almost always cripplingly regulated and interfered with by government that it is impossible to define them as anything approaching free markets. Britain’s Energy market is a case in point. Apart from the vast government bureaucracy that oversees the industry, idiosyncratic interferences such as the announcement by the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband, that his government would freeze energy prices if his party wins the 2015 general election also take their toll upon consumers. Firms are not passing on the reduction of wholesale Energy prices to consumers and are booking profits now for fear that they will be locked into furnishing energy at low tariffs in a period when wholesale prices are rising, should Miliband make good his threat. In contrast if you look to any industry that government tends to leave alone you do not find the same criticisms hurled at the dominant suppliers. Up until now we have seen that supermarkets, although subjected to food standards regulations that no doubt have raised prices, have benefitted from relatively less government interference and, apart from a few murmurings from food purists and local activists, inexpensive food has ensured that they have never been a serious political issue. However, now that food prices are starting to rise can we expect government to start poking its nose increasingly into the food industry and blaming the resulting shortages and disarray on the “exploitation” of the big supermarkets? Furthermore, given that trade is always a two-way process we could also say that the consumers “exploit” the need of businesses for money. These entities have suppliers and employees to pay and they are often desperate to get their hands on your cash – if someone else offers a lower price they could be left high and dry by your decision to shop elsewhere, threatening the employment and livelihoods of all of those people that work in the business you shun simply because you have the guile to want to pay less! It is partly for that reason that the supply curve for consumer goods is generally vertical, with merchants selling goods for any price they can get simply to shift them and have at least some cash to meet their future outgoings.

In a genuine free market businesses can never exploit anyone or hold anyone to ransom. A consumer would have the power to take his custom elsewhere if the business failed to meet his needs at an agreeable price. Although businesses as a whole set prices for consumer products and wages, no one individual business can do so and each one must be prepared to sell goods for, at most, as much as the next business, and to pay wages at least as high. These boundaries can be crippling if the selling prices are lower or insubstantially higher than the prices the business must pay out. Businesses, unprotected by government privilege, therefore have to be on their toes constantly in case someone comes along with a better offer. The beneficiary of this process is the consumer-employee, who always knows he is paying the lowest price for what he buys and receives the highest wage for his work that can ever be paid.

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Libertarianism, Morality and Religion

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A current recurring debate within the libertarian movement is that between so-called “thin” and “thick” libertarianism, the belief that libertarianism concerns only self-ownership and private property (or at least their derivative non-aggression) on the one hand (“thin”) or whether there are certain other moral imperatives or ends that are, at the very least, part of the libertarian spirit and serve to strengthen its message or, at most, are necessary for its cause (“thick”). In providing a contribution to this debate it is important to understand the place of libertarianism within two things; first, within the wider category of moral philosophy; and second, within the place of the personal ethics of individual libertarians.

Libertarianism and Moral Philosophy

Addressing the first question, it will be argued here that any concept of “thick” libertarianism misunderstands the fact that the purpose of libertarianism is not to espouse a positive theory of interpersonal morality; rather it is to preserve the character of individuals as moral agents to ensure that such theories are possible in the first place.

Questions of morality arise because humans face the constant and ceaseless condition of scarcity. Humans must prioritise the ends that they seek to fulfil as they lack sufficient means with which to satisfy all of them together. Moral considerations arise to inform this prioritisation and would be absent if it was not necessary. If every fulfilment could be achieved without the need of choice then morality would serve no purpose as every possible end would instantaneously be gratified. The necessity of choice, however, requires a means for informing that choice, a way to determine the best outcome that can be achieved with the means available. The result of any choice is an action that has a real physical effect upon the condition of the means, the matter which is the object of the action. A part of the universe is changed physically from serving one end to serving another.

We can think of morality as consisting of two parts or categories. The first part is unilateral or intra-personal and arises where you have a single, desiring, choosing and acting human surrounded only by dead and unconscious matter. Any choice that the human makes will result in an action that will have a physical effect upon at least part of this unconscious matter, for example an apple that is eaten or a piece of wood that is used for a fire or to build a house. Morality, in this instance, will inform the acting human how he should best serve his ends with the means available but there is no reciprocal relationship that arises between the human and the matter around him. Possessing no desire, choice, or action of their own and with their entire condition and motion subject solely to the laws of physics and chemistry, these external entities cannot be described as moral agents and are owed no moral obligation, nor do they possess any moral rights. Moral imperatives may serve to create boundaries upon that which you may do with a certain piece of unconscious matter, but this will entail no reciprocal moral burdens and benefits vis-à-vis that matter1. The second part of morality is bilateral or inter-personal and arises between two or many desiring, choosing and acting beings, all of whom may run into conflicts of scarcity as they seek to fulfil their individually valued ends with the means available, including their own bodies. Not only is someone else’s body inhabited by a conscious and end-seeking being, but the dead and unconscious matter around us may now also be claimed by someone else in order to fulfil that person’s ends and not ours. Hence we have moral rights and obligations that spring up between the acting beings in order to avoid or otherwise resolve these conflicts. There are two sub-divisions to this morality. First is the realm of physical enforcement of moral ends – what we might call violent enforcement. One human being may bring about his end by subjecting another to force or violence. The result of this is that one human’s ends are gained at the expense of another’s. This subdivision is the primary preoccupation of political philosophy – which moral norms may be enforced physically and what are the boundaries of that enforcement? The second sub-division is the realm of non-physical or non-violent enforcement of moral ends – those norms that may only be enforced by persuasion, cajoling, association or non-association, and so on. Furthermore, morality is used to serve as a benchmark or a standard of judgment of moral beings. We apply certain moral codes to other people’s behaviour in order to judge whether they have behaved morally or are, indeed, good and moral persons or evil scoundrels. This straddles both of the categories of morality we just outlined – we make judgments of people’s behaviour both in regard to unconscious matter (i.e. what they might do when alone, in their own home etc.) and of their behaviour towards other people. We may then modify our own behaviour in response to what we see in them – either embracing or befriending them if they are morally good or otherwise attempting to enforce our moral code if we believe them to be morally bad.

Libertarianism, thinly conceived, perfectly preserves these categories in order to provide a foundation for wider moral theory. The critical aspect of all moral agency is that an individual moral being retains the freedom to choose and to act upon his choice. Any physical restraint results in that person not being able to bring about his chosen ends, and any action of his that is compelled by force is not one that he has chosen. In other words the individual would cease to remain as a moral being at all. Libertarianism places only the rights to self-ownership and private property over unconscious matter that is previously unowned (or voluntarily transferred) within the realm of violently enforced inter-personal morality. Any person may repel any invasion of his body or property physically in order to preserve his character as a moral agent. Libertarianism’s sole preoccupation with this fact ensures that this bedrock is firmly established so that we can then go on to develop further theories of intrapersonal and interpersonal morality, to make prescriptions about people should behave, and to make judgments about the behaviour that they do make.

Let us consider, as an example, a proposition of interpersonal morality – that a person should give some of his earnings to the poor. A libertarian would state that this moral proposition would not be violently enforceable and the person would have to choose to donate his money. Such a moral proposition only makes sense when you apply the libertarian foundation of self-ownership and private property, preserving the individual’s character as a moral agent. The proposition concerns how the individual should freely choose to behave in relation to others, and having so behaved we can then make judgments about his moral character. If, on the other hand, it is proposed that the person should be forced to donate his earnings to the poor then this proposition ceases to concern the choice of the individual at all. By enforcing the imperative violently the individual ceases to have any input into the action and is treated simply like a piece of dead matter, such as a hammer or plank of wood – an unconscious tool for the furtherance of other people’s ends. However, the subtle intellectual change that has occurred is that the proposition is no longer a proposition of interpersonal morality. It is, rather, a proposition of intrapersonal morality directed at the enforcing agent, such as the tax collector or bureaucrat. It is not in any way instructing the taxed individual how to behave at all; rather it is instructing his enforcer to take money from him and do X, Y or Z with it. We cannot in any way judge the behaviour of the taxed individual as being “moral” or “immoral”; having no participation in the decision we cannot say that he is a better or worse being as a result. The only person we can judge is the enforcer and whether he behaved morally or immorally by taking the money. What we realise therefore is that any theory of interpersonal morality that enforces its decrees by violence is not a theory of interpersonal theory in any way at all. It simply a theory of intrapersonal morality for the rulers, concerning only how those in positions of power should act unilaterally, treating all other human beings as dead, unconscious tools to be exploited for whatever ends the theory sees fit. Such a theory can never be a theory of society; it preserves only the moral agency of the leader or the controller, degrading all other humans to the level of expendable resources.  Indeed, many moral propositions in public and political discourse today are not directed at the individuals in society but are, rather, are directed at government: “Government should do more to help the poor; government should build more houses; government should do more to curb fossil fuel use; government should provide a better education for my children, etc.” Only the rulers are required to make moral decisions and moral choices while the rest of us are reduced to the level of pets, to be worked, fed and watered but otherwise absolved from any responsibility for what we do. Moreover none of this changes simply because the rulers are democratically elected or, from time to time, the previous minority becomes the majority and the previous rulers may switch places with some of the previously ruled. It simply means that the propositions are directed at functional positions (Prime Minister, President, Congressman, etc.) rather than at specific, unchanging individuals.

It should be equally clear that nothing about such theories relying on force and the propositions that derive from them can make a more “moral” or “good” society for we can only judge a person’s behaviour when he is free to act. When he is forced to act or to not act then we can make no moral judgment of his action whatsoever, just as we cannot say whether a tree is behaving morally or immorally when it shakes in the wind. Indeed, as history has demonstrated amply, the more likely result is a moral degradation of the populace – laziness and lack of motivation caused by the bitterness and resentment at being forced to achieve someone else’s ends, and corruption and black marketing when there are any attempts to circumvent them.

It is this crucial recognition that libertarianism, thinly conceived, has to offer, and why it is becoming so attractive as the failure of government and forced rule becomes more obvious each and every day. Thin libertarianism may have nothing to say whatsoever on any positive moral and political theories. Rather, when those theories advocate violent enforcement, libertarianism, in effect, says “Stop!” Slow down, back track, and understand that for any coherent theory of interpersonal morality you need to preserve self-ownership and private property. Given that this recognition is so desperately lacking, any positive ends that are built upon libertarianism as a superstructure through any “thickening” of its concept is likely to distract from its vital core. In the short term this is likely to dilute the distinction between libertarianism and all other political theories (whether they be conservative or progressive) that has made it so successful – possibly leading to the subsuming of libertarianism as a branch of those political traditions. In the long term, there is the danger that any moral superstructure that is built on top of the foundation of non-aggression will come to jettison the crucial foundation itself. This is arguably what happened to classical liberalism, resulting in its transformation into the statist liberalism we know today2. However, our argument here does not simply concern strategy – that which is necessary for preserving libertarianism, or that which may be best in persuading people of the virtues of a free society and attracting them to the libertarian cause. Rather, the recognition of the preservation of individuals’ moral agency before any further positive, interpersonal moral theory is developed is absolutely essential for conceptual clarity and libertarianism’s place as the bedrock of interpersonal moral theory is required intellectually and not just practically.

We might also point out that there appear to be no positive ends and values that flow self-evidently from self-ownership and private property, or from their derivative, the non-aggression principle. Rather, any such ends and values that are advanced by the individual “thick” libertarian tend to concern that individual’s own personal philosophical preoccupations, such individuals including those with very strong libertarian and scholarly credentials3. It is difficult to see how such varying ends and values flow self-evidently from the same principle. More likely the individual “thickest” identifies the state as the roadblock towards the achievement of his own personal, societal ideals and so he advocates freedom. But he then makes the mistaken leap of tying those ideals – that which he wishes to accomplish through freedom – to freedom itself. We do not mean to suggest, of course, that there is no purpose or importance in debating which values and ends are likely to prevail in a free society, or over those which may assist the libertarian cause (as we shall proceed to do below). But such a debate has nothing per se to do with libertarianism’s place in the sphere of moral and political theory.

Libertarianism and Personal Morality

Addressing now the second aspect of libertarianism – that of its place within the moral outlook of the individual libertarian – it is sufficient, for a person in his capacity as a libertarian, to recognise only private property and self-ownership and to not develop any further moral superstructure upon those foundations. But in his capacity as a human being who must take his place in society we have to stress that such a limitation is woefully inadequate. Libertarianism only states that each and every person should be able to act free from physical incursion. It does not go on to say how he should choose to act, which decisions he should make in allocating the scarce means at his disposal. The consistent libertarian who claimed that self-ownership and private property are the only moral considerations would, in fact, never act at all as he would possess no ends to strive for and no values of which he would seek fulfilment. Rather we all as human beings have values, choices that we believe are right and choices that we believe are wrong, and we all seek to make the right choices and criticise those who do not. Libertarians can probably be forgiven for not having, thus far, emphasised their personal moral theories alongside their libertarian credentials. The violence and destruction wrought by the state has given us plenty to concentrate on. Nevertheless, such a development and espousal of a personal moral theory is critical from both a strategic as well as an intellectual point of view. Not only is it possible for someone who abides strictly by the non-aggression principle to be a thoroughly rotten and unpleasant individual, but the greatest danger lies in the fact that libertarians, by refusing to interfere violently in certain peaceful but morally repugnant ends, may be misinterpreted as going further and actively condoning and praising such behaviour. Simply because we collectively, in our capacity as libertarians, have nothing to say about non-violent actions and choices may result in us appearing as the “anything goes” crowd, failing to address the genuine and heartfelt moral concerns of people we hope to persuade of the virtues of a free society. It is often not sufficient for people to hear that loose abstractions such as “the market” or “private charity” will, for example, suffice to take care of the poor, even if we demonstrate their superiority in doing so. Rather, with any moral issue we are presented, we must be prepared to take a personal moral stance. Our only difference is that we would not violently enforce that stance but would, rather, seek to promote it non-violently and to persuade people to make what we think would be the right choice. It is, therefore, perfectly commendable to state, for example, that people should not be forced to give to the poor but that it would be a good thing for them to choose to do so; or to state that no one should violently stop another person from taking drugs but that to do so would be a morally bad choice and that we would not wish to associate with those people; or to state that you can’t stop a person from making racist comments but you would think that such a person is an ignorant and repugnant bigot. Or, of course, you might conclude the opposite if you can persuasively argue your case. What is important is that you engage with the issue and do not stop short at merely analysing an action or end as non-violent and then having nothing more to say. But the views that you espouse will not be made in your capacity as a libertarian – libertarianism only forming the bedrock of your moral outlook – but as a choosing, desiring, valuing and acting human being who takes his place in society. Nevertheless, the more you build your personal moral views upon a libertarian bedrock, the stronger that bedrock becomes by demonstrating conclusively that libertarians as human beings are not morally vacuous but can, indeed, hold a flourishing and well-developed positive moral theory that addresses the moral concerns of everyone else in society. Indeed, summing up what we have concluded in this section, we might say that a “thick” conception of libertarianism would serve to undermine and destroy it both intellectually and practically; whereas libertarians possessing an otherwise “thick” and engaging supra-libertarian moral outlook separate from but compatible with libertarianism, would very much promote it.

Morality and Religion in a Free Society

One of our conclusions above was that even though a debate concerning which values and ends are likely to prevail in a free society has nothing to do with libertarianism’s place in the sphere of moral and political theory, there is still some purpose and merit in venturing to speculate upon whether, in a world that was completely free from government force and compulsion and which was founded upon the institutions of self-ownership and private property, these facts in and of themselves would encourage a general supra-libertarian morality in a particular direction. For example, if left to their own devices, would that very fact cause people be more likely to create a world of inclusion, non-discrimination based upon race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., would it be secular or religious, multi-cultural or strictly divided, and so on? Would it be a world in which drugs and recreational substance use is widespread or is it more likely to encourage restraint and conservatism in such use? Would it be a world of close connections of family and friendship or would there be more “free love” and sexual experimentation? Even though as a matter of pure logic, libertarianism is compatible with any moral theory so long as the ends posited by that theory do not invade the private property of anyone else, it is submitted that, in practice, it is not likely to work out that way and that we can expect at least a certain kind of supra-libertarian moral order to exist by virtue of the fact that a society is founded upon the institution of private property. What follows is the author’s speculation upon what kind of order this will be.

The foundation of this speculation is the observation that wherever human freedom has been unshackled and free enterprise has been allowed to pursue whatever ends it chooses with relatively less molestation, individuals have chosen to engage in processes that increase their material prosperity ahead of simply sitting around day dreaming and enjoying endless leisure time. The capacity for energy and enterprise has increased, the division of labour has widened and the material standard of living has risen. This may partly be implied in the logic of action itself as increased freedom leads to greater or more successful action and is therefore, likely to result in more actions and more improvement. It is also the case that fulfilment of more ethereal needs such as spirituality, rejuvenation, relaxation, meditation, and so on can only come about once material needs have been satisfied so that even if one was to pursue the former the latter would have to be conquered first. Nevertheless, it is an empirical observation and there has never been any strict requirement for individuals to choose to engage in production rather than simply extending their leisure time4. It is therefore reasonable to assume that the creation of a free society would lead to expansion of the division of labour, the accumulation of capital, an increase in production, and of the material standard of living.

What we can note about this fact is that those who, in a free society, accumulate income and wealth and hence possess a greater ability to direct economic resources are those who serve the needs of consumers. At the level of the capitalist-entrepreneurs, therefore, this will require a number of different qualities: the patience and low time preference to accumulate capital; good judgment, foresight and prudence in directing that capital to where it is most needed; empathy and understanding of one’s customers; and the sociability and communicability required to engage and motivate contractors, colleagues, and employees. The capitalist-entrepreneurs in turn will look for employees who are hard-working, educated, reliable, trustworthy and the employees will therefore seek to spend their money on consumers’ goods that will nurture, within them, these qualities. In other words serving the needs of others and the qualities and characteristics required to do so are ends that would be encouraged by the adoption of a free society. Resources therefore will accumulate in the hands of those who display these qualities and would disappear from the hands of those who do not; qualities and characteristics that harm or otherwise interfere with one’s ability to serve others – laziness, high time preference, a lack of empathetic understanding, unreliability, and on so – will be discouraged and are likely to diminish.  While, therefore, it is possible for persons to engage in endless leisure time and spend their entire day indulging in activities such as drinking, drug-taking and having sex, the resources available for them to do so will be limited and they are likely to be excluded from all prospects of increasing those resources as the habits in which they indulge are antithetical to any method of doing so (i.e. serving others) on the free market.

Second, is a free society likely to be non-discriminatory, and inclusive of all genders, races, religious beliefs, sexual orientations, and so on, or will it be highly segregated and exclusive? We can speculate that there will be two outcomes to this question rather than one. First, in the impersonal and arm’s length dealings of the marketplace, it is likely that all factors that are not relevant to one’s ability to serve the needs of others will be excluded from consideration. If I buy a sweater from a shop it is not likely to make any difference to me whether it was made by a man or a woman, by a white or a black, by a gay or a straight, by a pious Christian or a devil-worshipper. I am so far removed from the complex chain of production that any prejudice or preference I might have in this sweater being made by someone of a particular creed or colour is likely to recede drastically. If consumers do not care about a worker’s personal qualities other than his/her ability to serve the consumer’s ends then neither may capitalist-entrepreneurs do so in the chain of production as they are forced to adhere to their customers’ wishes. If I am looking to hire an employee for my enterprise, the costs of excluding the best person for the job based on some discriminatory ground will mean that I fail to keep up with my competition and will lose money faster. It is true that certain industries will serve different types of people and that certain personal qualities are likely to make one more adept at serving the needs of people who are similar to you. Christians may be better at investing in, producing, marketing and serving specific goods that are desired by other Christians; gay men may be the best people to do the same for gay men, and so on. And people of certain genders, races or cultures may be attracted to certain types of employment ahead of others. It might also be true that a person feels more comfortable if the precise person who serves them at the front line is someone of their ilk – the familiarity of a similar person perhaps helping to grease the wheels of commerce if empathy, advice or understanding is needed to assist a person with his purchase. But all of this only produces an outcome that better serves the needs of consumers and is not based on race, gender, or sexual orientation per se. If a pious, heterosexual woman could develop, market and serve products to gay men better than other gay men could then she would receive their custom and gay male vendors would not. Furthermore, in the vast array of production of goods that are common to all or most of us and are not produced for a specific category of person, any kind of discrimination in the chain of production is likely to diminish as we will always go to the people who can provide those goods at the lowest cost. Freedom under the division of labour does not require everyone to like or love everyone else, or for everyone to be liked or loved; it only requires you to serve them and the skills that each person can offer in this regard are likely to trump any other factors when it comes to the question of inclusion or exclusion. Our second possible outcome, however, might be slightly different. In the area of personal or familiar relations – as opposed to the arm’s length and impersonal relations of the marketplace – discrimination and exclusion may become more, rather than less intense. Although it is possible for the inclusion of the marketplace to encourage and foster a blending of different people – after all, if you work in the same factory, shop or office as someone of a different race or culture, there is the possibility or even the likelihood, that you will become friends simply through the opportunity of contact – on the whole, people tend to prefer the comfort of familiarity, similarity and uniformity. Individual residential areas and communities, therefore, might be internally homogenous and will cater only to the needs of the type of person living there, even though those communities will be happy to trade with others of a different type in the marketplace. This is not to imply, of course, that each different community will actively hate any other and can only barely stand to engage in mutual trade. Rather, it is likely to be a cordial, peaceful and even friendly co-existence. All we are suggesting is that when it comes to a matter of highest preference people are likely to opt for those who are similar to them in their personal and family relationships – such a preference not requiring you to hate anyone who is not similar. In any case, this entire speculation may be wrong and perhaps people will choose to mix more in their personal relationships as well as in their professional. The beauty of the market is that as we do not force anyone to adhere to a certain set of principles then we do not know the precise outcome; all we know is that that which results is the outcome that will satisfy everybody as far as possible.

The third consideration is related to the previous two. As there is no welfare state in a free society and nobody will have the right to violently wrestle resources from anyone else in the event of unemployment or need, the cultivation of personal relationships becomes relatively more important as there may come a day when we will need to rely upon those relationships if we are in dire need. We can speculate, therefore, that the institutions of family and friendship will strengthen in a free society. Such institutions will seek to include those who are trustworthy, reliable, sociable and responsible and will exclude those who are deceitful, unreliable, unfriendly and selfish. There is also likely to be less “free love” and sexual promiscuity in favour of longer term relationships and marriage that produce children, the latter being those upon whom you can rely when you reach old age and infirmity. Furthermore, as there will be no state-supported child rearing in a free society, only those who accumulate enough wealth by serving the needs of others will be able to afford to raise children. Although some of the qualities necessary for serving the needs of others that are inherent in the parent may be passed on genetically (so that people lacking those qualities will simply cease to be born in significant numbers), even if they are not then the parents are likely to foster the qualities in their children that made them, the parents, successful. Moreover, given that the parents will one day die and wish to leave their wealth to their children they are likely to require the reassurance that the fruits of their life’s work is being left to decent, responsible hands. They are not likely to be content to leave their wealth to a lazy, ill-educated drug addict.

What we have hypothesised, therefore, is that a free society, in which everyone must possess the ability to serve the needs of consumers in order to attract income and wealth, is likely to result in a cultivation of the qualities necessary for doing so, such a cultivation producing a relatively “conservative” (with a small “c”) society. This society will discriminate less on the bases of gender, race, colour, etc. but rather upon the specifically chosen behaviour of free individuals. Those who behave in accordance with ways that serve the needs of consumer and develop the characteristics necessary for doing so will be included. Those who do not are likely to be excluded. We must emphasise, however, that nothing of what we have said requires an individual libertarian to support or promote these ends. Only if people turn down the path of increasing their material welfare and expanding the division of labour would qualities and values necessary for serving others become prominent and our speculation is based only upon the fact that this is the choice that has been made in the past. It is possible for the individual libertarian to advocate a different choice and for free individuals to make it.

One final interesting question concerns the place of religion and religious worship in a free society. Religion has always fundamentally concerned three questions – why we are here; how we got here; and what we should do now that we are here. The pondering of these questions and the result of a shared belief as to their answers among individuals is, of course, logically compatible with libertarianism so long as its practice is peaceful and voluntary. However, the inability of early thought to separate phenomena from purposeful intent resulted in the fact that these questions have not been addressed with mutual exclusivity. Why we are here has been ascribed to the purposeful desire of one or more deities; how we got here was a result of that deity’s action; and it followed, therefore, that what we should do while we are here was to bow to that deity’s commands. Therefore, given the deep-seated need in the human psyche to fill the void that is left by these problems and the resulting imperatives that may be dispensed, whoever has been able to provide the gateway to these answers has enjoyed an immense amount of power – tell people where they came from and how it was done then you can tell people what they should do. Religion has therefore always attracted to its ranks the greedy and the power hungry and it is no accident that it has, throughout much of history, been aligned with the state – limited not just to established churches, but to the extent that the king or emperor himself was elevated to the rank of a God. Although early Christianity and the Thomist emphasis on the natural law diminished this welding for a time, the Protestant Reformation and the rejection, by John Calvin and Martin Luther, of reasoned ethics served to make religion once more a tool of, rather than a controlling force over, absolute rulers. Furthermore, religious wars and crusades have often been wars of power and control rather than strictly over the question of belief. Much of the history of religion has therefore been distinctly anti-libertarian. These days, of course, the development of scientific knowledge has stepped in to answer the puzzle of how we got here, which has served, for many people, to sever any connection between the cause of the universe and any moral imperatives they may face in their daily lives. However, there are two severe limitations to this. First, a knowledge of the natural sciences itself posits no moral theory and, other than agreeing that the pursuit of truth is a good and valuable thing, scientists can offer no moral guidance. They might be able to tell you what will happen when a man has sexual intercourse with a woman, and they could describe the shock you would get if you were to put your fingers into a power socket; but they will not, as a result of their discipline alone, be able to tell you why you should or should not do these things. Rather than replacing religious imperatives, the secularity encouraged by science has, rather, left an empty vacuum. Indeed, knowledge derived from scientific research has been used for some horrendously evil ends as well as good. Secondly the purpose of science is to trace the effects of phenomena back to their ultimate cause; yet the human mind is not able, in the physical and logical dimension it inhabits, to comprehend the concept of an ultimate cause. Every cause that we discover in turn becomes another effect whose existence and characteristics must be ascribed to some further cause that must be investigated. The concept of God is an attempt to deal with this teleological problem; we ascribe to God abilities and characteristics that defy normal explanation, yet our image of him – as a distinct consciousness, a father-figure, etc. – couches these characteristics in a manner that we can understand. Indeed, one of the frequent objections to the existence of God pronounced by atheists – “why are there so many Gods and which one is the right God?” – is perhaps not as interesting as the question as to why they are all so similar. Nearly always they are paternalistic humanoids, they are responsible for all creation and all life and they are the dispensers – if not always the practitioners – of morality. Rather than there being many different Gods, different cultures and traditions have ascribed broadly similar characteristics, varying only in their own cultural idiosyncrasies, to what is roughly the same being in order to create a giant metaphor for things that we do not and perhaps cannot ever understand. Science, or anything else, has not yet provided a sufficient alternative answer to this problem. Indeed, the existence of God is not viewed by believers as a strictly scientific problem like any other. The tools of science – the laws of physics and the laws of logic – are themselves part of the very phenomenon under investigation – creation – and are subject to God’s will. As tools for explaining their creator they therefore appear hopelessly blunt, if not, completely inadequate. None of this, of course, is meant to condone belief and condemn non-belief, or vice versa. Rather it is an attempt to explain why people hold the beliefs that they do.

Having said all of this, what can we conclude about religion and libertarianism? It is difficult to say whether a free society will encourage or discourage religious practice. What we can be certain of, however, is that it will continue to be a very strong force in the world, probably for a long time. There is clearly a need somewhere in the human psyche, possessed by a great many individuals, to ponder the origins of the universe, not just the how, where and the when but the why. Given our inability to meet these needs we can be sure that a libertarian world will have to find some way to deal with religion. Whether this will be mere accommodation, opposition, or embracing will be dependent upon whether religion in turn neutrally respects, is opposed to, or actively supports libertarian principles. There are one or two arguable reasons for at least an accommodation. First, there are many libertarian imperatives, rules, parables and examples in religious texts. The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, contain some strong libertarian imperatives and the remainder is not avowedly unlibertarian. There is no reason why, in a libertarian world, religions should not emphasise a more libertarian bedrock for their further moral teachings. Secondly, religion would be expected to dissolve its historical marriage to power and the state, a dissolution that may not occur easily. Yet so too will everyone else have to do the same – bureaucrats, politicians, favoured corporations, and so on. Nobody will be able to latch onto and use the mantle of the state to pursue their ends. There is no reason why religious people should find this more difficult than anyone else. Given that a libertarian world is unlikely to appear unless a majority of the citizenry come to believe in the justice of libertarianism, congregations themselves should already have embraced the libertarian mind-set. Finally, we may consider the problem of so-called religious extremism, the sort of extremism that wishes to destroy or violently repress anything contrary to its teachings. Particularly, at this time, we might as well mention the dominant issue of Islamic fundamentalism that fuels terrorism. Whatever political system is adopted and whatever the view of the majority of people with regards to their rights and obligations towards others, there will always be fundamentalists, radicals, extremists, zealots and revolutionaries in just the same way as there will always be murderers, rapists, thieves and fraudsters. Many of these will, from any common standard, be lunatics, nutcases or simply deluded fools. Left to their own devices, as they would be in a libertarian world, these people would simply be a bare minority of loners who are unable to spread their views, with any violent attempt to accomplish their aims simply being classified as criminal behaviour like any other. The only reason that Islamic religious extremists who encourage terrorism and violence gain any traction whatsoever is because the foreign policy of the United States and its allies pours fuel onto the fire of what they are saying. The behaviour of Western governments – bombing civilians, invading sovereign countries, spreading a secular democracy – lends plausibility to religious extremism as both an explanation of and a solution for a very real and unwanted foreign incursion. With State power eliminated in a libertarian world, this problem would not exist and such religious extremism would be without a vehicle for motivation.

Conclusion

Summing up everything we have said, libertarianism, thinly conceived, is necessary to form the foundation of wider moral theory. Libertarianism is, therefore, not “thick”. Libertarians, themselves, however, must, in their capacity as human beings have a “thick” moral outlook, that outlook not being a part of libertarianism per se but built upon its firm foundations of self-ownership and private property and seeking to strengthen those foundations through non-violent enforcement. We can, though, speculate that a certain moral order may unfold in a society based upon self-ownership and private property if free individuals choose to expand their material well-being and widen the division of labour. That order is likely to emphasise roughly “conservative” values and while it is not possible to say whether religion is encouraged or discouraged by such an order we can conclude that it is likely to occupy a prominent place.

1Moral considerations may, of course, arise out of concerns for the welfare of the matter – for example, whether the act of a human being may legitimately cause an animal (a non-actor) pain and suffering. But such considerations only concern whether it is good for the human to be the initiator of the animal’s experience of pain and do not create any reciprocal moral rights in the animal.

2Llewellyn H Rockwell Jr., The Future of Libertarianism, lewrockwell.com, May 1st 2014.

3Walter Block identifies a number of prominent libertarians who draw either right wing or left wing conclusions from libertarian foundations. See Walter Block, Libertarianism is unique; it belongs neither to the right nor the left: a critique of the views of Long, Holcombe, and Baden on the left, Hoppe, Feser and Paul on the right” Journal of Libertarian Studies; Vol. 22: 127–70.

4Those who hark back to the pre-industrial era seem to assume that this is how blissful and care-free life used to be, overlooking the fact that the need to provide enough food alone necessitated back breaking amounts of work.

The Good Libertarian

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Libertarians face a number of difficulties in how to live their own lives while they are pursuing a world that that they believe is just. This essay will explore a number of them.

Two of the aims that a libertarian should try strive for is, first of all, a deeper and better understanding of the foundations of libertarianism and political philosophy in general. In particular, the reasons why ethics arise, a passion for truth and justice and how libertarianism is to be distinguished from other political philosophies are key points of focus (indeed, it is surprising how very few people of all persuasions consider the first of those questions). Only through this can a libertarian have a rigorous an immovable understanding of the truth of his position. The second is aim is to attempt to convince others of this inherent truth and why libertarianism would lead to a “better” world than either what we have already or what could be offered by an alternative philosophy. For while it is all very well sitting alone at home and being satisfied with one’s personal understanding, the world a libertarian seeks is unlikely to be achieved unless it is embraced by a majority of the population1.

These two aims are mentioned together because the elements that are applicable to each are often conflated whereas, in fact, they possess a degree of exclusivity. Indeed, different people will display different capabilities towards intellectual rigour on the one hand and towards spreading the fruits of that rigour on the other and it has often been the case in political movements that the visionaries, developers and consolidators of thought have had to wait for their work to be embraced by the practically minded revolutionary. The first aim is one that can be achieved through meticulous and almost puritanical or hair-splitting debate between libertarians themselves, i.e. within the school of those who self-identify as libertarians and have already embraced, in principle, a passion for liberty. In order to gain the best understanding of the foundations of our position we cannot rely on batting away the worn, tired, and relatively “light-weight” arguments of statists and busybodies then, having become satisfied with this relatively straightforward intellectual accomplishment, retire comfortably. We must, rather, take on the heavy-weights within our own movement with whom we disagree. A world-ranking sportsman is not likely to ever improve his ability by taking on the weakest opponents – rather he must constantly test himself with the best that is out there and so too must libertarians embrace clefts within the movement in order to move closer to the truth. Some examples might be whether minimal government is justified or whether government is totally unjustified; whether the non-aggression principle always applies; or whether the concept of “universally preferable behaviour” is a logically valid test of moral propositions.

At the same time, however, it is very important to realise that simply because a libertarian belief or conclusion from some internal debate is true does not necessarily mean that it is useful in persuading others of libertarianism. It would also be wrong for ideological debate within the movement to form publically acknowledged sects, with libertarians appearing as a divided camp that does not know what it wants. We must remember that the opinions that must be swayed towards liberty are not those of the hardcore, intellectual statist or socialist who form only a relatively insignificant minority in number. Rather, the people that will matter are the passive and uncommitted people who, although perhaps disillusioned with current government and think it needs to be “better” and run by “better” people, otherwise hold no firm or passionate commitment to any particular political ideology. Blasting these people with the concepts of self-ownership, non-aggression, natural law, argumentation ethics or whatever is not likely to appeal to them and will simply come across as abstract, irrelevant, ivory-tower conjectured gobbledygook. As libertarians, our educative concerns are very little to do with whether a person can be forced to save a baby drowning in a puddle. Rather, we must emphasise that our primary pre-occupation is with the evil monstrosity that is the state and the jealously reserved monopoly of legitimised violence that it possesses. It is sufficient, in order to at least begin a person on a path towards a better understanding of this edifice, to appeal not towards our cherished libertarian doctrines that we are happy to discuss and argue about amongst ourselves, but, rather, to people’s grasp of basic morality. Murder is wrong; the state murders. Theft is wrong; the state steals. Kidnap is wrong; the state kidnaps. Humans are bound by a common code of morality; the state consists of humans. Why then can the state get away with these horrendous crimes? What is it that makes these humans so special? Why can they circumvent the rules that everybody else has to follow? Why the hypocrisy? Much of what we are doing is simply revealing to people what they already know to be true and to benefit from that by applying it consistently. This will, of course, not be the complete answer towards turning someone against the state. But a definite first step is to try and render the state as a separate and distinct caste from the ordinary citizenry. One of the greatest “triumphs” of democracy from the statist point of view has to been to immunise the division between rulers and ruled, that, because we are able to exercise a vote between a tiny selection of screened and approved candidates once every four years, that we are all somehow a part of government, are able to control it and can demand what we want from it. Rendering inert this well-engrained impression is a libertarian’s primary educative task. The less a person feels himself a part of the state, the less able he feels to exert a degree of control over it, and the more it appears that it is reserving for itself special powers to do whatever on Earth it likes, the greater will be the seeds of doubt in a person’s mind as to its legitimacy.

None of this means to say that one should not engage in deeper discussion if that is where a particular conversation is heading; but one must at least wait for signs of a kindling of interest in those directions and should always try to look for the path that is most suitable with each particular audience.

Conversely we must also guard ourselves against the opposite danger. Just because a true proposition, or a piece of libertarian doctrine is not, in the main, useful in persuading others to turn towards libertarianism does not mean that such a proposition has no fundamental truth, aids nothing at all for understanding and must, consequently, be abandoned. Truth exists regardless of whether people are prepared to embrace it. While some detailed application of libertarian ethics and the strict adherence to self-ownership and private property in so-called “lifeboat” situations may produce outcomes that seem bitter and distasteful, not only do we have to bear in mind that such judgments are being made in a world that is inherently un-libertarian and where private property and self-ownership do not command a great deal of respect, we must also consider the supra-libertarian values and ethics that happen to prevail. To take an example: is the starving person wandering in the forest who comes across somebody else’s log cabin morally permitted to break in and steal the food in the cabin in order to prevent his death? In a society where charity and helping one’s fellow neighbour is a virtue and where we have long been accustomed to government invading our private property in order to try and achieve a redistributive result, it is understandable that any emphatic “no, he may not” in response to this question by a libertarian invoking the canons of the non-aggression principle and self-ownership will be met with outright derision and hostility from those he is trying to persuade. But one could also posit a world where taking care of yourself and relieving others of the burden of your needs is the prevailing virtue, and that the situation of being helpless and isolated is a grave and shameful relinquishment of personal responsibility. Such a world may also command a great deal of respect for private property and keeping off other people’s turf. In that situation a typical person might happily conclude that the starving wanderer has no moral right to break into the cabin and that it is meet and proper for him to seek fulfilment of his own needs self-sufficiently. Both sets of supra-libertarian virtues – charity on the one hand and taking care of oneself on the other – are, in principle, compatible with libertarianism and non-aggression. It does not necessarily follow that simply because one set of circumstances prevails and the other does not that anything about libertarian ethics should be rejected. If there is shock and disbelief at the revelation of the world being round it does not follow that it should be regarded as flat.

Another difficulty that libertarians face is how to live a life in accordance with libertarian principles. In other words, to what extent should we each go to in order to act non-violently and preserve the self-ownership of others? Should we, for example, use government roads to travel, visit government hospitals when we are sick, or send our children to government schools? Are we not benefitting from the taxes levied by force from others in order to achieve ends that we may seek through government-provided facilities? Should we even vote? When government spreads it tentacles so far and wide into every nook and cranny of existence it is practically impossible to say whether any good or service that a single person enjoys has been brought about entirely through voluntary arrangement – not to mention the fact that numerous industries have been nationalised directly. In fact it is almost certain that a government edict, a regulation, a tariff imposition, a directly-government managed industry, a government-privileged business, or a union-backed worker must at some point, if not all, have taken effect in or otherwise “contributed” to the chain of production. Indeed, practically anything that is transported must use government-controlled roads, railways, seaports or airports. Furthermore, as we noted earlier, democracy itself has effectively nationalised the citizenry, so that every person is now a potential beneficiary of government operations but also can be, at least on the face of it, responsible for its actions.

How are libertarians to cope in such a world without opening themselves up to the charge of hypocrisy? Although we could say that libertarians themselves as tax payers are contributing to anything the government runs and are just, therefore, taking what they have been forced to pay for when they use these services, the more pressing moral concern is that it is difficult to suggest how a person should behave in a perfectly non-violent way in such a world. It is a basic requirement of morality that a person must be able to do what is moral; the extent of government has been to render practically every action a potentially morally questionable act. Yet a person always has to act and cannot refrain from doing so. Even just sitting at home he is taking advantage of government building code edicts, planning permission, utilities that supply the house, heating, gas, and light etc. Where every choice is a potentially morally bad choice then there is, effectively, no moral choice and one cannot be held morally responsible for acts that may benefit from minute and, to the actor at least, imperceptible and remote grains of violence when the only alternative action was one that was equally culpable. To take an extreme example, let’s say that the government tells a person that he must choose between whether A should die, B should die, or (should he refuse to choose) either of them will die. In this situation one cannot condemn this person for making an immoral choice when every option was equally bad. This person would not be labelled a cold blooded killer who could be regarded as hypocritical if he was to suggest that people should not commit murder. Rather, libertarians should focus on ensuring that the conduct of their lives is as free as possible from directly and obviously contradicting libertarian principles. In order to accomplish this there is an important distinction that must be borne in mind and that is whether a hypothetical action is, on the one hand, merely a consequence of the state or whether, on the other hand, it would be an emulation of the state. In other words can an act be regarded as the result of what flows from the state’s interference, or is it a new and extensive act of violence that is independent from that perpetrated by the state? Making this judgment in practice may be very difficult and there will, of course, be many grey areas and room for disagreement that a libertarian should be open to acknowledging as informants of this judgment. Whereas shooting a person in order to steal his possessions would clearly be a new and unique violent act, other actions may be more nuanced. But it is important to at least understand the conceptual distinction as a first step. In any case, however, libertarians are already somewhat used to judging actions in this manner. We can clearly distinguish between the wealthy politician living off the largesse of tax receipts and the poor old lady who uses a government road to purchase a loaf of bread from the grocery store. None of us, in trying to promote a libertarian world, would hope to be taken seriously by ignoring the government sponger and focussing on the “evil” pensioner2.

Additionally, however, even if it is possible to condemn a person as behaving in an anti-libertarian way, is it not far better for him to acknowledge this and call for its cessation rather than merely staying quiet and carrying on, even if he risks ridicule and charges of hypocrisy?

One curiosity concerning this topic before we leave it is that it tends to be a preoccupation among libertarians and is not one that is too often mentioned in retort by statists. Perhaps the latter see more clearly that they are gladly forcing you to do things their way and that you cannot help it? In that case let the libertarian who is without sin cast the first stone – if he suggests that everyone should not engage with government at all in all of his actions then allow him to demonstrate how he has managed to even survive without doing so.

Finally, however, and perhaps more importantly than the foregoing from a strategic point of view, is that libertarians should attempt to cultivate a personal code of morality that is in accordance with but above and beyond their libertarian beliefs. A popular charge against libertarians is that we are the “anything goes” crowd, that simply because an action does not hurt anyone then it is A-OK and must happen. While it is true that any non-violent action must be tolerated and not subjected to violent imposition or restraint, it does not follow that it is free from criticism, nor must it be liked, loved, embraced or welcomed as a good thing. It might be non-violent to allow gambling adverts to appear during children’s television programmes, but that does mean that we are inclined to agree that they should. People may be harming no one else by taking drugs but that does not mean that it should be welcomed as a good thing, nor should one necessarily want to frequent with drug users. People cannot be forced to give to the poor but that does not mean that, if they choose not to, they should be regarded as fine and upstanding people. We very much need, as libertarians, to make plain the fact that we as a group neither condemn nor promote non-violent actions but as individuals we too have our own tastes, morals, pleasures and displeasures, just like anyone else and we use these to judge the conduct of other people and whether we wish to associate with them. “Live and let live” applies only to the imposition of violence and our difference as libertarians qua libertarians is that we do not believe in using violence to enforce our preferences on other people. But we do, as human beings, have these preferences and we should not be afraid to express them simply because they concern the non-violent acts of others. Non-violence is not the highest moral achievement, merely the most basic on which a free and prosperous society can be built; it is the first step towards a good society and not the last (although, at present, it may seem like an enormous leap across a chasm rather than a step). How that society is shaped within the sphere of non-violence is a question to which we must contribute along with every other thinking, desiring, choosing and acting human being.

1Elsewhere the present author has argued that education, in the goal of eliminating or at least reducing the state, may well take a back seat to innovating government away, i.e. that people’s natural affinity for individualism will simply circumvent government through superior technological development. This does not, however, render education redundant and it would still be far better if government was both out-innovated and knowingly rejected.

2In many cases it is also arguable that this judgment could be sharper. There is a tendency for libertarians to condemn acts that are proximately violent, yet they all too readily leap to the defence of actions that, while proximately non-violent, reap huge advantages from less obvious government intrusion. For example, if it is complained that western corporations are paying employees in poor countries too low a wage then one must support the principle that wages must be freely negotiated between employer and employee. But one must also balance this against the possibility of these corporations benefitting from monopoly and regulatory privilege, brand protection, intellectual property and any other enforced reduction of competition that would have served to increase the wage rate.

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