Building a Libertarian World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Immigration

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The subject of immigration is keenly debated both within libertarian circles and in the mainstream, having been an important issue in the British referendum to leave or remain in the European Union on June 23rd and also in the forthcoming US Presidential election in November. This essay will outline the core libertarian theory concerning immigration before examining the key area for contention among libertarians – whether, in a world populated by states, any particular state should restrict or otherwise control movements across the border by persons who are not considered to be citizens of that particular state and whether this is in accordance with libertarian theory. We will also explore the additional question, assuming the same, worldwide condition of individual states, of which ways immigration can be said to be a “good” thing and in which ways it can said to be a “bad” thing.

In strict libertarian theory there is no treatment of immigration separate from the general libertarian approach to private property. In a libertarian world all pieces of homesteaded land would be owned by private individuals. Although the owners of neighbouring or otherwise closely situated pieces of land may share a common language, ethnicity and culture, there would be no legally defined national borders; all we would have are the borders, or rather, the boundaries of each parcel of private property marking the point where one person’s ownership ends and another person’s begins. Who, how and when other individuals cross these borders is a private matter for the property owner. It is his property and he can welcome and exclude whomever he likes and on whichever terms he likes. If the property in question is his home then his closest, most immediate family, who may also live there, are likely to have unrestricted access; more distant family and friends may be granted access at mutually agreeable times when they wish to see each other; a lodger will have access governed by a tenancy or licence agreement; and “handymen” or contractors may be granted temporary access to carry out certain work that the owner pays them to undertake. Everybody else in the world, on the other hand, is likely to be excluded. At no point, prior to any agreement or contract with the owner, does any person have a legal right to cross the border of another person’s property. An uninvited crossing is, in libertarian theory, defined as unlawful, aggressive behaviour and may be met legitimately with physical resistance. The only places where people could wander wherever they please, except for their own property, would be onto un-homesteaded or ownerless land as only in this condition would they be undertaking an action which does not interfere with the prior rights of another individual.

In a world populated by states, however, there are not just borders or boundaries between privately owned pieces of land; rather, there are borders between whole swathes of territory which form the landmass of the states. A particular stretch of land immediately on one of these borders need not be privately owned – it may be publicly owned if it is a road or a park or even ownerless if it is, say, an unkempt meadow (although the government will, of course, claim ownership over all un-homesteaded land). In such a world the question concerning immigration would not be whether immigrants would have the right to enter your home or, say, your privately owned business premises; not even the staunchest supporter of immigration contends that this should be the case and if we assume, as minarchists do, that the state has a legitimate responsibility to protect individual parcels of privately owned property from uninvited access by either foreign or domestic individuals then this stance is perfectly in accordance with libertarian theory. Rather, the issue concerns whether the state should grant, without question, prospective immigrants a right to enter the territory of the state at certain, designated  points on the border into publicly owned or ownerless territory that the state nevertheless claims is within its jurisdiction. This, necessarily, raises the further question of whether successful immigrants would be at liberty to access all publicly owned territory, such as roads, to use publicly funded facilities and to claim publicly funded welfare.

In this imperfect world of state borders the question we as libertarians have to answer boils down to how, in libertarian theory, we should treat the ownership of publicly owned land. If the government permits any foreigner to cross the border into publicly owned land can such an arrangement be equivocated with, or approximated to, an uninvited, physical invasion of owned property, in which case it would not be permitted? Or is it an action that is more equivalent to crossing into ownerless or un-homesteaded land and thus does not violate the rights of an existing owner? If we lean towards the first possibility then the resulting situation would be one of “open borders” – the de facto right of any foreigner to cross into publicly owned or ownerless territory of another state. However, if the answer is no then it does not follow that closed borders would result – it is only a quasi-invasion if foreigners cross uninvited. To listen to the mainstream arguments one would be forgiven for thinking that the immigration question needs to be met by an all or nothing answer – it is apparently a contest between liberals, or self-styled “progressives”, clamouring for fully porous borders on the one hand versus conservative, racist bigots who supposedly want to keep everyone out. We reject this false dichotomy and recognise that it is quite possible to be in favour of permitted, regulated immigration – allowing some people to cross the border as immigrants to come and live and work in the territory of the state while denying that privilege to others.

The most convincing reconciliation of this situation with libertarian theory is arrived at by asking a simple question. If the state was to dissolve itself today who, if anyone, would have the strongest ownership claim over the publicly owned land to which immigrants would gain access if they were permitted to cross the border? It is doubtful that such land can be construed convincingly as unowned given that it contains significant infrastructure – roads, railways, utility networks and so on – that have been deliberately engineered, bringing the land into a developed condition that is far from its natural, ownerless state. This infrastructure was paid for by the domestic, tax paying citizens for the benefit of domestic, tax paying citizens, and was not paid for by foreigners who have not been tax payers. It follows, therefore, that the strongest ownership claims to publicly owned land reside with the domestic, tax paying citizens of the state. As long as, therefore, the state owns and operates this land on behalf of the tax paying citizens it should be construed as the owned property of those citizens, to which non-owners can be excluded from entry in just the same way as a house owner may exclude strangers from his house. Thus it is reasonable to suggest that foreigners do not have a legitimate right to cross a state border. Moreover, if the opposite was true and libertarian theory was construed publicly owned land as ownerless then it would seemingly allow foreigners, or indeed, anyone, to homestead this land and take it out of public ownership. The suggestion that one could homestead a major road to the exclusion of the rights of those who were forced, by the state, to pay for that road’s construction, is clearly absurd.

An objection to this suggestion is that non-taxpaying domestic citizens, such as low earners and children, will be permitted access to the publicly funded infrastructure. If we are ascribing ownership of public assets to those who fund them through tax contributions then shouldn’t these domestic, non-taxpayers be excluded too? In the first place we could suggest that the taxpaying citizens – i.e. the taxpaying parents of children and taxpaying businesses who need customers to access them via public roads – have extended a quasi-invitation to non-taxpayers to use the publicly funded infrastructure. However, before we begin to contort our analogy in a tortuous fashion we have to remember that no answer we can give in this regard is going to be perfect. A world populated by states is not a perfect situation with which libertarian theory has to deal. Libertarian theory properly excludes the state entirely; however, if we have to suffer the state in some form then there is an impetus upon us to make it function in the most liberty-oriented way, an endeavour we can only accomplish by approximating ownership as it would be in a stateless society rather than by replicating it entirely. Moreover, it is probably not possible to distinguish taxpaying citizens from non-taxpayers on a public highway, whereas it is eminently possible to exclude foreigners at a frontier.

If we maintain this theme of attempting to approximate ownership in a stateless society we can also determine the situations where foreigners would be permitted to cross a border. As we noted earlier, in libertarian theory owners may invite non-owners onto their property as and when they see fit and upon whichever terms are agreed. Such an entry would not then be an invasion. The most likely way that such invitations could be extended to cross state borders would be if a foreigner is offered employment within the territory of the state, or married into a domestic family. Alternatively, perhaps, a foreigner may purchase property that is within the territory of the state. Critically, however, these invitations should initiate from private sources and private exchanges, not from quota systems or other arbitrary rules and restrictions emanating from the state. Not only does this serve more convincingly our approximation of public ownership with private ownership, but there are also sound economic reasons for stating that this should be the case. If, for example, an invitation to cross the border is dependent upon an offer of employment from a private company or individual it demonstrates that the skills possessed by the immigrant are genuinely in short supply within the domestic population as perceived by the real wealth creators. The immigrant will arrive and will be integrated into the employer’s workforce immediately, co-operating with the existing, domestic co-workers in the production of goods and services. This is less likely to exist with either unlimited immigration, or immigration defined according to government direction, where the influx of immigrants may simply be creating a greater supply of labour which pushes down the wages of existing, domestic workers, and is likely to increase racial tension and xenophobia.

Indeed, the economic cases for and against immigration are rarely stated correctly in the mainstream debate and so it is worth our while to concentrate on these for a moment. Those who advocate open borders will be keen to point out that immigrants bring productivity and skills which serve to increase the standard of living of the indigenous population. Those who argue for restriction, on the other hand, will stress that, in fact, an influx of foreign workers simply competes with domestic workers for employment opportunities, sowing the impression that foreigners are “stealing our jobs”. Both points of view contain kernels of truth yet neither is valid in all situations. Whether or not immigration is a benefit or a burden concerns whether labour and capital goods are balanced in a particular location. The applicable economic theorem in this regard is the law of returns, which states that if the quantity of a factor of production is increased while the quantities of the complementary factors are held constant, there will come a point when the increases will produce diminishing returns and, eventually, no returns at all. For example, a farmer who wishes to grow crops may take land, seeds, water and fertiliser as his factors of production. If he holds the quantity of land, seeds and water constant while increasing the quantity of fertiliser then at first he will experience increasing crop yields per additional unit of fertiliser he deploys. Eventually, however, further increases of fertiliser will produce fewer and fewer crops per additional unit deployed without further increases in land, water and seeds, until eventually there will be no additional returns at all. Finally, of course, production will cease altogether when the land becomes buried under a mountain of fertiliser. If, on the other hand, there are increases in the quantities of complementary factors of production in addition to increases in the quantity of fertiliser, it is possible for the farmer to experience an increase in crop yields per additional unit of fertiliser deployed. Exactly the same is true when the increased factor is not fertiliser on a farm, but is, rather, human labour. If labour is increased, through population increases, but it is not possible to increase the complementary factors of production then the increase in population will simply result in diminishing returns and an overall reduction of per capita real incomes. This will be particularly acute if there is a sudden influx of a particular type of labourer that requires specific types of complementary goods in order to be productive. If there is an increase in low-skilled, manual labourers then a given territory also needs to have the additional factories, machines, tools and equipment for them to use. If it does not then the existing stock of such items simply has to be used more intensively by a greater number of labourers, which, if the increase in labour is left unchecked, is the recipe for diminishing returns. There is no point in shipping in a boatload of carpenters if there isn’t enough timber for them to work on, or if there are not enough workshops to house them; it is futile to welcome more workers onto a car assembly line if the assembly line itself has not been built, or if there is a shortage of steel or aluminium. In principle, at least, this extends to highly skilled labour as well. If a state brings in from overseas a load of doctors then the additional hospitals, surgeries and medical equipment have to be available too. Obviously the situation can become dire if the incoming population cannot work at all – for example, if there are a lot of children suddenly entering a territory, or those otherwise demanding educational services, then there needs to be the additional schools and colleges, otherwise existing class sizes simply swell and the quality of education (i.e. the “returns” on inputs into education services) diminishes. All of these additional capital goods – the machines, the factories, the equipment, the raw materials and so on – are demanded right from the moment that the immigrants arrive and seek work. However, their availability is not immediate as the production of capital goods requires both time and, more importantly, savings. Therefore, if the labour is specific, i.e. specialised to only one kind of occupation, then immigration will serve simply to increase the supply of labour applied to the relevant capital goods, thus pushing down wage rates for the domestic population. If, on the other hand, the skillset of the immigrant labour is unspecific then it may be possible to put them to work in creating these capital goods – i.e. building the very factories and tools they need to increase their productivity. However, capital goods do not yield an increase in productivity until they are completed and if the immigrant population is to go to the effort of creating them then they need consumer goods to sustain them during this phase of construction, a phase which may take a number of years before the additional capital goods are able to increase the supply of consumer goods. The only source of the latter is the prior production of the indigenous population. In other words, the domestic citizens have to reduce their level of consumption today in order to save and fund the additional production of capital goods, thus lowering their standard of living. The only way to induce this voluntarily is to raise interest rates so that more people save out of their current income. However, higher interest rates are precisely what are discouraged by spendthrift governments and economists hypnotised by Keynesianism, who do everything that they can to lower interest rates and decrease the incentive to save. The domestic population therefore continues to maintain its preference for consumption over saving and so all that they see is higher prices for the very consumer goods they wish to buy and lots more people from far flung lands wanting to buy them. It was the understanding of this whole phenomenon which formed the basis of Malthusianism – that if population increases outstrip gains in productivity then society becomes, overall, poorer. For the indigenous population of a given state, the incoming population simply becomes competing consumers of existing, or a barely increasing stock, of goods and services. Indeed, some libertarians have pointed out that this may be the aim of the state in the first place – to bring in more welfare parasites and weaken the wealth and power of the indigenous population, thus expanding the size and scope of government.

On the other hand, it is clear that if there has been an increase in the non-human factors of production but not an increase in labour then these factors too will be subject to the same law, the law of returns. In other words, an increasing number of machines, tools and factories will be used by the same number of labourers, with the result that the latter become spread out more thinly over a burgeoning supply of capital goods. In this instance, an increase in population is precisely what is needed to increase productivity and to make use of the additional capital stock. So, for example, if an empty factory with nobody to operate it, and machines and tools lying idle, is filled quickly by immigrant workers then productivity can rise on account of the fact that there has been a commensurate increase in labour and capital goods. Such a situation is not unheard of in areas where there are extremely favourable reasons for creating capital goods – low tax rates, strong private property rights, good transport links, and good supplies of natural resources – except for a sufficient supply of willing labour. For example, a mining business has to open up shop where the ore it wishes to mine is located. The labour must come to the ore in order to ensure any productivity from the mine. Going back to what we said earlier, if there is an under or oversupply of either labour or resources, only private business owners and entrepreneurs should make decisions as to what moves where – whether labour should be moved to where resources are or whether resources should be moved to where labour is – for only they are in a position to judge, through pricing, profit and loss, which is the most cost effective solution in ameliorating the imbalance between labour and capital goods. Any direct action by the state in this regard will simply create surpluses and shortages either of labour or of capital goods in different areas, as government management of anything always does. Indeed, in a previous essay on “Overpopulation”, the present author argued that increasing population is generally not a concern, from an economic point of view, under conditions of an unmolested division of labour; but it does become a very acute problem when government interferes in population levels, especially in specific areas. In particular, if we look at the two most extreme positions the state could take with regards to immigration – a policy of completely open borders (or even an active pursuit of higher immigration numbers) on the one hand, and a policy of completely closed borders on the other – the former will tend to lead to a surplus of labour while the latter will tend to lead to a shortage. In a world without the state where each parcel of land was owned privately, areas with relatively high populations and low concentrations of capital goods would have higher access costs – higher prices to access roads, higher property prices, higher school prices, and so on, deterring immigrants away from an area where there are already too many people. On the other hand, areas with relatively low populations and relatively high concentrations of capital goods would have lower access costs, encouraging immigrants to move to the place where there are not enough people. Thus, through the pricing system, the market sends signals to prospective immigrants telling them which areas need them and which areas do not. In a world managed by states, however, a policy of open borders will mean that the free cost of access to state controlled territory such as roads, schools and hospitals artificially lowers the cost of immigrating, a situation which is, of course, exacerbated when immigrants have either unrestricted or lightly restricted access to welfare benefits. There will therefore be more immigrants and a higher population than the area requires. On the other hand, a policy of totally closed borders artificially raises the cost of immigration to the level of imprisonment or being shot on the frontier. Thus, while for some this cost is justified (as trying to cross the Berlin Wall was, although this border was directed at keeping people in rather than out), the overall result will be fewer immigrants and a lower population than the area requires. States with heavily restrictive immigration policies, such as the United States, can often find that their domestic companies become exasperated by the difficulty in hiring foreign talent while there will be relatively more attempts to cross the border illegally.

This leads us onto another central theme concerning immigration and that is racism and xenophobia. Any treatment of the topic of immigration cannot avoid addressing these issues, particularly given that any opposition, principled or otherwise, to a policy of “open borders” is often shouted down as racist or at least racially motivated. In the first place, libertarian theory has nothing to do with racism. Our conclusion earlier, predicated on the approximation of ownership rights with regards to publicly owned property, that states may, legitimately, restrict foreigners from crossing the border into the territory of the state says only that the state may choose to exercise such a restriction on behalf of its tax-paying citizens. It may equally choose to relax or forego any restriction. Libertarian theory says nothing about the motivations that the state, its politicians and bureaucrats, and the citizens it supposedly represent, may have for making a choice either way. It states only that they may make such a choice. Libertarian theory is emphatically not motivated by anything that could be construed as racist. Moreover, if one does cross over to a value judgment and state that immigration should be restricted in certain circumstances, as the economic concerns that we just outlined suggest is wise, then it is preposterous to assume that the motivation is necessarily racist. These economic concerns would be true in a world populated entirely by whites, entirely by blacks, entirely by Asians or whomever, all speaking the same language and all with a relative cultural homogeneity. Yet the argument – that an increase of labour without an increase in complementary capital goods would lead to diminishing returns – would still be exactly the same.

Rather, what we will attempt to argue here is that racism and bigotry derive from, rather than precede, a state’s policy of fully open borders and that it is such a policy which aggravates racial tension. A libertarian policy of managed borders, with invitations to cross extended to immigrations extended by private individuals and companies would, in fact, result in a relatively peaceful world where different races would co-exist without difficulty.

The key to understanding why this is so is to do with how the economic aspects we outlined above intertwine with cultural homogeneity in a given society. A society is not simply a collection of atomistic persons doing whatever they like whenever they like, even though such a society may exist hypothetically in libertarian theory. Rather, people in a society embrace a certain culture and the particular morals, rules, habits and hierarchies that are created by that culture. The reason for this is not accidental or spurious. Rather, relatively predictable, reliable, homogenous practices across the populace as a whole not only aid but may even be absolutely necessary for effective social co-operation, and it is through social co-operation – the division of labour – that people are able to raise their standard of living for themselves and for their families.  A common language is, of course, an important, if not the most important homogenous, cultural phenomenon required for social co-operation. It is no accident that in very few places in the world there is a complete mixture of different languages and that, for the most part, different languages are separated geographically. Even a country such as Switzerland, which officially speaks French, German, Italian and Romansch has different areas in which each of these languages is dominant, with only a handful of fully bilingual areas. The barriers to social co-operation if the opposite was the case are obvious. Imagine coming to work one day and finding that your boss speaks only Russian, your co-worker Chinese while the team you manage speaks a mixture of Spanish, Welsh and Punjabi. Cultural practices extend also, however, to such apparently menial aspects as the 9am until 5pm working day, or when the main meal of the day is eaten. If people stroll into the office whenever they please or vanish at 10 in the morning to enjoy a three course meal clearly social co-operation is impaired. This is not to imply, of course, that everybody has to do absolutely the same thing all the time in a given society. However, the exceptions prove the rule and different practices – such as working at night and sleeping during the day – are regarded as unusual. Moreover, there is also the fact that humans are a tribal race – we prefer to associate with those who are familiar to us, those who do what we do and those who agree with us, if only for the comfort of predictability, regularity and routine in addition to the contribution of such aspects to social co-operation. Indeed, if the benefits of cultural homogeneity for social co-operation are true then it is possible that our preference for it is an outcome of evolution, which has biased us towards desiring things, through instinct, that ensure are our survival and betterment. However, it would be a mistake to assume that most specific cultural practices emerged randomly or through simple preferences. Rather, they were shaped and formed by the challenges presented by the specific climate, geography, topography and the available resources of the particular locale. For example, the Mediterranean practice of taking a siesta in the middle of the day originated because the temperature was too hot to work at that time. Indian food makes use of a lot of spices because of the difficulties in preserving food in such a hot climate, a difficulty that was not quite so prevalent in regions further from the equator. The practice of circumcision originated out of the challenges posed to male hygiene and comfort in a hot desert environment. The creation of the family unit and sexual fidelity, which we take for granted today, originated at least in part from the need for fathers to bear the costs of raising their children when population levels in hunter gatherer communities began to outstrip resources, something which could not be managed in a culture of “free love”. The family is a cultural practice we see all over the world because the problem it solved was experienced throughout the world, whereas less universal cultural practices sought to solve only specific, local problems.

When immigrants move from one state to another they are usually moving from one culture to another – from one language, one religion, one set of social norms, one type of cuisine, and so on, to something else with varying degrees of difference. If a relatively homogenous culture is both a natural human preference, is a requirement for effective social co-operation, then it follows that cultures of both the immigrants and the indigenous population of a given state are not likely to mix naturally within the same locale and that, rather, one set of cultural practices must yield to the other. This is particularly so when the cultural practices of the immigrants were developed with regards to the challenges posed by their homeland and may be superfluous or completely contradictory to what is required in the state to which they have emigrated. When, as we outlined above, individual immigrants are invited to the state by individual persons and companies to accept an offer of employment it is because there is a pressing, economic need for their presence – there is a surplus of capital goods and equipment and a shortage of labour. The immigrants, in this instance, will begin work immediately and will mould themselves into the cultural practices and habits of the indigenous population. Furthermore, their skills and abilities, being in genuine short supply, will be recognised and appreciated by their co-workers, with whom they will be co-operating to create more wealth and a greater standard of living, rather than competing to consume an existing stock of wealth. It is true, of course, that immigrants may retain cultural practices of their homeland in the domestic situation of their own home; however, the first generation of children, born in the state to where their parents have emigrated, will become heavily surrounded by its culture. To them, this new state is their homeland and not a foreign place and they will know little to nothing of their parents’ place of origin. Thus they become even more integrated into the culture of the new state and will most likely consider themselves as citizens of the new state even if they retain an obeisance to the state from which their parents emigrated. This is not to imply, of course, that the culture of the immigrants will be completely eradicated. Indeed, in some cases, foreign cultural practices find their way into the indigenous culture. The delights of foreign cuisine, for example, are often embraced by a domestic population, as Indian and Chinese food has throughout the West. All we are saying is that at if social co-operation is to be pursued to its fullest extent, one of the cultures must become recessive and to the extent that the immigrant population form a minority it is likely to be the indigenous culture that remains dominant. The outcome, of course, is a prosperous society where immigrants and natives work together peacefully without racial tension or xenophobia.

Contrast this situation, however, with the case of where it is the government of the state which welcomes immigrants to its territory, either through a policy of open borders or according to some artificial quota system which is wholly unrelated to the genuine demand for additional labour within the state. Here, the immigrants will arrive without offers of employment but they will quickly look for them. However, because there is no demand for additional labour at the existing wage rates the effect of the arrival of the immigrants is to push existing wage rates down for the indigenous population. Thus the latter draws the perception that immigrants are simply creating a crowd, a crowd which competes for existing resources but seemingly does little to add productive value. This becomes exacerbated by minimum wage laws and other costly employment regulations that the state heaps upon employers – if wage rates drop below these levels then unemployment must result. Hence the perception that foreigners are coming over to “steal” jobs from the indigenous population, although both will be afflicted. Moreover, if the immigrants cannot find jobs then it is less likely that they will be integrated into the working practices and the cultural environment of their new state. What results, therefore, is that they form their own communities and their own local economies which, with little impetus to do otherwise, retains the cultural distinction of their homeland. Hence, the perception amongst the indigenous population, that entire towns and communities are being “invaded” by an alien culture and that one’s own homeland is being turned into an outpost of some far and distant country. The stage is set, therefore, for an increase in racial tension and xenophobia, an increase which will be exacerbated if the government follows a deliberate policy of multiculturalism – i.e. the explicit intention to create numerous cultures within the same society where one was previously dominant by inviting immigrants. Multiculturalism has rarely existed under purely voluntary conditions. The only exception is where vast swathes of immigrants from different places move to a previously uninhabited or sparsely habited area. The difference here, however, is that everyone, from wherever they have come, has moved to the new land in order to make a better life for themselves and they are attempting to do so in a place where there are few, if any, indigenous persons of a given culture seeking to preserve an existing culture. Everyone, in other words, is embracing change and the challenges that come with improving their lives, rather than attempting to defend one that already exists. Such was the early history of the United States which, of course, was populated by immigrants from all over the world.

What we can see, therefore, is that policies of open borders and forced integration are the cause of racism and xenophobia through economic and cultural clashes. They are not the solutions to these problems. However, even if there were no economic barriers to welcoming immigrants to a given state and even if the only motivation for indigenous people to exclude them was racism and xenophobia that sprung from their own minds entirely as a matter of preference, our priority is to ensure that all of the six billion people of different creeds, colours, races, and religions are able to co-exist peacefully on this small rock hurtling through space. If different peoples and cultures living in separate geographical locations achieves this whereas mixing them all together in a single place causes them to fight then it is reasonable suggest that preference should be given to the former.

Progressives often label their policy of mixing cultures in the same locale as a policy of achieving “diversity”. Yet the world as a whole already is a diverse place. Some places are hot, some places are cold, some are wet, some are dry, some have fertile soil while some are barren. As we said earlier, this diversity of geography, climate and topography, together with the unique challenges posed by each difference with which humans have to deal, is what creates diverse cultures. The forced creating of “diversity” in every single locale simply amounts to a travesty. Not only does mixing every culture everywhere in every location, in fact, create bland uniformity as opposed to diversity, it is the equivalent of trying to put a mountain, a hot desert, and a jungle all in New York City. To that extent we might say that attempting to create “diversity” is a utopian revolt against nature.

Conclusion

To summarise what we have concluded here:

  • In a world where the existence of states is assumed, the ownership of state property should be approximated to the ownership of the state’s tax paying citizens, thus ruling out a right, in libertarian theory, for non-taxpaying foreigners to cross the border;
  • That invitations to cross the border should be made to prospective immigrants by private companies and individuals;
  • Such a policy would prevent the relative surplus or shortage of labour experienced when the state actively manages immigration policy; labour and capital goods would be channelled, through pricing, profit and loss to where they are most needed;
  • That it is relative surpluses of labour through policies of open borders, forced integration and the pursuit of multiculturalism, which are the causes, and not the solutions to, racism and xenophobia. The prevention of surpluses of labour through the method we described would also prevent such racial and cultural clashes and is more likely to create a world of peace and prosperity for all persons, regardless of colour or creed.

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Voluntary Slavery

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The topic of voluntary slavery – that is, the question of whether an individual who is presently a self-owner may voluntarily subject himself to slavery irrevocably – is understandably controversial yet, properly understood, not an overwhelmingly difficult one to comprehend. This essay will attempt to clarify some of the problems and issues surrounding voluntary slavery, together with a discussion of elements that have not been thus far examined in much detail. Although we will not reach anything other than a modest conclusion here, we will attempt to put ourselves in a better position of understanding the main problems.

The first question that must be resolved is precisely what is meant by slavery. Here we must recall the fundamentals of wider political theory and how libertarianism answers the questions that it raises. The ultimate reason why ethics exist is to resolve conflicts over physical matter. Different people desire to devote physical objects to different ends. Hence, property rights are vested in individuals over physical objects in order to determine precisely who, on the one hand, may use that object to fulfil his ends and who, on the other hand, must yield and seek other physical objects for the fulfilment of his ends. The issue of slavery therefore concerns the property rights over the body of an individual person and whether someone may, from a purely legal point of view, voluntarily transfer ownership of the physical matter that constitutes their bodies to another person. In other words, our question here is whether, in accordance with libertarian theory, one’s own body can permissibly constitute physical matter the ownership of which can be transferred to another individual. Or, to put it a further way, whether someone else’s body could, through voluntary arrangement, come to constitute your outright property and be treated however you like. Importantly, though, ownership rights are not the only type of rights that we might consider. A right may simply constitute the legal ability to perform a specific physical act in relation to a specific piece of property, not to dispose of that property in any way the rights holder may deem fit. Easements and leases, for example, confer upon their holder the right to enforce merely a single action, such as the right to walk across a field between the hours of 9am and 5pm. Any other physical actions towards the property in question are not permitted. Therefore these more diluted rights, short of full ownership, must also be considered in relation to the matter that constitutes a living human’s body. This is important because in certain situations people do contract to grant other people the right to come into physical contact with them in ways that are far less than full ownership and this is not believed to be controversial – most notably professional contact sportsmen who have contracted to play on a certain number of occasions. The question of whether preventing the transfer of the full ownership of one’s body i.e. voluntary slavery – would, in turn, prevent the granting of these “lesser” rights over the same is not something that has received sufficient analysis.

It is important also to distinguish the granting of rights from the granting of mere consent. People come into voluntary physical contact with each other’s bodies in a variety of scenarios – sexual intercourse probably being the most frequent. However, such contact is not permitted on the basis of a granting of a right to the other individual. Your partner, for instance, does not have the “right” to have sex with you. Rather the fact of consent in these situations demonstrates that there is an absence of conflict regarding the physical matter in question (i.e. your body); that both parties are in agreement as to how that matter should be directed at that particular point in time. Thus, if a person is accused of raping a woman, his defence will not attempt to argue that he had a “right” to have sex with the woman but, rather, that the fact of consent established a situation of no conflict. If that consent is withdrawn, however, a conflict exists and the physical contact becomes invasive and unlawful.

Before beginning our examination of voluntary slavery we must expunge from our thought all of the connotations and consequences associated with involuntary slavery with which we are acquainted from our historical experience of the practice. Forced subservience, second class citizenry, racism, slave labour camps and extermination in World War II, appalling living conditions and brutal, inhumane punishments are all issues that fall into this camp, some of which are believed to have consequences today. For example, the lower socio-economic position held by black Americans compared to whites is believed, rightly or wrongly, to be a legacy of black slavery. Libertarianism is emphatically and uncompromisingly opposed to any arrangement of involuntary slavery where an individual effectively imprisons another person aggressively and any dealing of other human beings as property in this regard is absolutely and unrelentingly opposed by libertarianism. A discussion of purely voluntary slavery – which would be a peaceful and mutually agreeable arrangement clearly devoid of all of the effects we just listed – cannot commence with the die loaded against its possibility as a result of us confusing it with the wholly different and abominable practice of involuntary slavery. Indeed, it may be ideal for this purpose to denote some term other than “slavery” for voluntary arrangements, reserving “slavery” purely for forced and aggressive relations. However, as a neologism is not yet forthcoming we will continue to talk of “voluntary slavery”. Moreover, and for the avoidance of all possible doubt, nothing concerning whether or not a person may voluntarily subject himself to slavery has any bearing on his prior right to self-ownership, which is firmly and uncompromisingly established in libertarian theory.

Furthermore, we must also suspend from our thought anything to do with the cultural acceptability and the tastefulness of (or the motivations that people may have towards entering) an arrangement of voluntary slavery. In spite of the protestations of the handful of dyed-in-the-wool Marxists that the majority of labourers languish in a state of so-called “wage slavery”, it is clear that no one today properly views other human beings as in any way, shape, or form as “belonging” to anyone else as either a matter of culture or as a matter of strict legality. We do not regard employees as belonging to their employers, nor do we think of a wife as being owned by her husband; rather, in spite of conversational colloquialisms such as “my employees” or “my wife”, these are viewed as mutually agreeable partnerships between humans with equal individuality and dignity. The only exception is children who, on account of their immaturity, are said to “belong” to their parents but this relationship is viewed as one of care and nurturing founded upon love and trust and is a far cry from any sense of ownership in the manner one would own an inanimate object. Any relationship between owner and owned founded on voluntary principles would therefore appear to be initiated by some kind of unusual, fringe motivation, perhaps sexual or sadomasochistic, or simply unconscionably “exploitative” such as in the case where a person demands the slavery of another in return for something the latter desperately needs. These issues are not relevant to our main concern here which is the strict legality of an arrangement of voluntary slavery – that is, regardless of the motivations towards such an arrangement, if a person agrees voluntarily can he become a slave? Libertarians uphold the legality of hundreds of other voluntary practices, taking effect through either mutual consent or contract, which may not happen to have the blessing of mainstream, cultural approval. Drug taking, adultery, prostitution, parsimony, selfishness, or even gambling are all, at least in certain settings, socially unacceptable. Libertarians would uphold the legality of an individual choosing to do these things but he may also, privately, believe that such choices would be unwise or even bad choices and would equally uphold the legal right of other people to disassociate from these practices. Similarly, therefore, with regards to voluntary slavery, the question of whether two people should be legally permitted to enter such a relationship is separate from the question of whether it would be a good idea, founded upon good motivations, for them to do so and we must hold firm this distinction in our mind.

At this juncture of our analysis, we will proceed to dispose of two arguments that are frequently asserted in the debate concerning voluntary slavery – one in favour of arrangements of voluntary slavery and one opposed to them. Indeed, these two arguments practically dominate the issue yet they are, in the view of the present author, not really the issues that cause the topic to be problematic. The argument in favour is the straightforward one that if you own your body then you should be able to do what you like with it. Therefore, if you cannot sell that ownership to another person in order to become a voluntary slave then you do not really own your body at all. Thus, so this argument goes, outlawing voluntary slavery is an attack on the concept of ownership. Stated in this naïve, literal sense, the argument misunderstands this crucial concept. Ownership of an object simply means that you have the right to exclude other people from their physical presence over that object in order for you to be able to fulfil certain ends you may desire from that object to the detriment of ends that other people may desire from it. If I own a cup it means that other people may not invade the physical integrity of that cup without my permission whereas I, on the other hand, may do so without anyone’s permission. Thus, ownership is a sociological concept and concerns the sphere of permissible activity towards physical objects vis-à-vis other people. Once exclusion of all other persons has been achieved it does not mean that I can “do whatever I want” with the cup. I cannot turn it into a car or make it vanish to the other side of the world (although, of course, no one has the right to physically restrain me from attempting to accomplish these things with my own property and we can surmise that, one day, the technology may exist to do so). Nor, to a greater degree of impossibility, can I make it a cup and a plate at the same time, or paint it red all over and blue all over simultaneously. The argument that dismissing the possibility of voluntary slavery dilutes the concept of ownership is clearly rendered false by these examples. The fact that I cannot do any of these things with the cup does not in any way afflict my right to exclude all other people from the physical integrity of that cup. If subjecting oneself to voluntary slavery also founders upon a similar impossibility in nature (which, as we shall see, is the chief argument of those who oppose voluntary slavery) then this impossibility in no way diminishes the concept of ownership. On the other hand, if there is no impossibility in transferring ownership over your body to another person, this fact is not predicated upon the concept of ownership necessitating one’s ability to do whatever one likes with one’s property. Rather, it simply means that the there is no barrier to making the right to physically exclude all others from the physical borders of your body transferrable to another individual. The correct way of approaching the issue is to ask whether any attempt to forcibly prevent any arrangement of voluntary slavery would itself be an unjustified interference with your right to exclude all others from your physical property. Only in this sense can the argument that one should be able to do whatever one wants with that which one owns carry any merit.

The next argument that we will consider, which opposes voluntary slavery, is the doctrine of inalienability. In order for a physical object to be the subject matter of a contract, so this argument goes, it must be alienable, i.e. separate and divisible from that person, and not constitute an integral part of that person himself. The primary fixation in the mind of these authors is the nexus between the body and the mind, or, more accurately, one’s will – that to bind the body by transferring ownership over it is to also bind one’s will, something which supposedly cannot be done. It might be useful, in understanding this argument, to quote its main proponent, Murray N Rothbard:

The only valid transfer of title of ownership in the free society is the case where the property is, in fact and in the nature of man, alienable by man. All physical property owned by a person is alienable, i.e., in natural fact it can be given or transferred to the ownership and control of another party. I can give away or sell to another person my shoes, my house, my car, my money, etc. But there are certain vital things which, in natural fact and in the nature of man, are inalienable, i.e., they cannot in fact be alienated, even voluntarily. Specifically, a person cannot alienate his will, more particularly his control over his own mind and body. Each man has control over his own mind and body. Each man has control over his own will and person, and he is, if you wish, “stuck” with that inherent and inalienable ownership. Since his will and control over his own person are inalienable, then so also are his rights to control that person and will. That is the ground for the famous position of the Declaration of Independence that man’s natural rights are inalienable; that is, they cannot be surrendered, even if the person wishes to do so. Or, as Williamson Evers points out,

“the philosophical defenses of human rights are founded upon the natural fact that each human is the proprietor of his own will. To take rights like those of property and contractual freedom that are based on a foundation of the absolute self-ownership of the will and then to use those derived rights to destroy their own foundation is philosophically invalid.”

Hence, the unenforceability, in libertarian theory, of voluntary slave contracts. Suppose that Smith makes the following agreement with the Jones Corporation: Smith, for the rest of his life, will obey all orders, under whatever conditions, that the Jones Corporation wishes to lay down. Now, in libertarian theory there is nothing to prevent Smith from making this agreement, and from serving the Jones Corporation and from obeying the latter’s orders indefinitely. The problem comes when, at some later date, Smith changes his mind and decides to leave. Shall he be held to his former voluntary promise? Our contention – and one that is fortunately upheld under present law – is that Smith’s promise was not a valid (ie., not an enforceable) contract. There is no transfer of title in Smith’s agreement, because Smith’s control over his own body and will are inalienable. Since that control cannot be alienated, the agreement was not a valid contract, and therefore should not be enforceable. Smith’s agreement was a mere promise, which it might be held he is morally obligated to keep, but which should not be legally obligatory.1

Walter Block has provided an extensive rebuttal against the doctrine of inalienability as understood by Rothbard and several other scholars which we need not repeat verbatim here2. Rather we will shall choose a few salient points and add some observations of our own.

In the first place, we must dispose of the argument that property rights have anything to do, as both Rothbard and Evers argue, with the self-ownership of the will. The question of ownership arises as a result of conflicts over physical matter, not intangible concepts such as the will. Indeed, when we begin to talk of the idea that to transfer ownership of a person’s body is synonymous with repudiating any ability to change one’s mind and thus unconscionably binding one’s “will” we see that we run into all sorts of problems, namely that it proves far too much. For all contracts, which transfer title of property from one person to another, do, in fact, bind a person’s will and restrict the choices he can make in the future. If I transfer a car to another person my will is then irrevocably bound from enjoying the services of that car ever again. I have voluntarily excluded from myself the choice to use that car to serve my ends as opposed to someone else’s. I cannot later change my mind and take the car back again. To apply Rothbard’s argument consistently would require one to invalidate all transfers of title to property. Indeed, the fact of scarcity itself results in a world where one’s will is repeatedly and irrevocably bound by choices that have to be made every minute of every day. We make these choices because we believe that the resulting situation is an improvement for us compared to that which we have discarded. Once I have eaten the proverbial cake my will is bound by that fact and my subsequent desire to have the cake instead is fruitless. This is no less true when those choices involve interpersonal exchange rather than autistic exchange. If I make a decision to trade away some of my possessions my will is eternally bound by a restriction from ever using those possessions again. But the reason why I choose to do so is because I gain something from the exchange that is more valuable – that my will has been restricted in one way yet released in another, more satisfying way.

The transfer of ownership of one’s body may, of course, engender a restriction over one’s will greater than that of transferring ownership of an external object such as a cup. Indeed, the core of Rothbard’s problem seems to be that transferring one’s body absolutely, irrevocably and in all cases subordinates one’s will to someone else’s. However, such a restriction must, in the mind of the individual, be worth the resulting gain. Rothbard the economist was emphatic that valuations are subjective so it is not for him to determine whether a person should value ownership of his body higher than some other end. Moreover, it is not always clear that contracts which transfer rights over one’s body would necessarily bind one’s will in a manner that is more restrictive than contracts that transfer external objects. As we noted earlier, not all rights are outright ownership rights. We can imagine types of transfers of rights over one’s body short of full ownership similar to easements and leases – such as the right to keep a person in a specific location. The only right conferred on the other party is to prevent this person from leaving this location, whereas the latter person still retains the ability to do whatever his “will” desires within that location. A could agree with B to remain on a twenty acre estate with a ten bedroom mansion, a personal chef, a swimming pool, a tennis courts, fields, woods and so on. This contract would be invalid in Rothbard’s view and the individual should be able to change his mind and leave. Yet a contract to transfer one’s entire annual salary to another person for the rest of one’s life would, according to Rothbard, be valid and enforceable. Yet it is clear that the latter binds one’s will in far more ways than the former. Moreover, what are we to make of transfers of full ownership of parts of the body as opposed to the whole? Surely I could sell my leg or my arm or, more realistically, a kidney for organ transplant without binding my “will”? Precisely how much of my body do I have to transfer ownership of to another person before my “will” becomes bound? Once detached, of course, it is possible to consider a particular body part “alienated” and thus saleable; but it is difficult to understand how, under the inalienability doctrine, precisely how one could conclude contracts regarding a particular body part prior to such detachment. So if Rothbard’s argument can be extended to the conclusion that a person cannot transfer any part of his body whatsoever to another person it would mean that surgeons, in spite of the full contractual consent of the patient, would be prevented, by law, from removing a malignant tumour in order to save that patient’s life.

In a rare moment of confusion for this author, Rothbard mixes the factual with the normative in order to lend his argument plausibility (Randy Barnett makes a similar argument3). In the quotation above Rothbard says “Each man has control over his own mind and body. Each man has control over his own will and person, and he is, if you wish, ‘stuck’ with that inherent and inalienable ownership. Since his will and control over his own person are inalienable, then so also are his rights to control that person and will.” In other words because, in nature, the de facto control of a person’s body rests with his mind then so too should the normative power of disposal over that body, i.e. ownership. Now it is absolutely true that in nature a man’s mind and will is always wedded to his own body and this connection would survive any attempted sale of one’s own body to another individual. No legal document can ever confer on me the power, with my will alone, to make another person blink, cough, or move his arm. That individual would still retain the same de facto control over his mind and body just as he was before he sold himself into slavery, and he would still retain his thoughts, feelings, and desires. But these facts have no bearing on the question of ownership, which is who may legitimately determine the ultimate disposal of the matter that constitutes a person’s body. The issue we are interested in is, regardless of whatever the slave’s will desires and the de facto control over his body, can somebody else, through a voluntary arrangement, legitimately intervene with the physical integrity of that body? This de facto control of the voluntary slave to control his own body may have a bearing on how much use and enjoyment an owner could get out of his voluntary slave and, indeed, whether the prospect of ownership is attractive in the first place. A voluntary slave may choose to misbehave, disobey his owner or just be generally lazy and workshy. Other voluntary slaves, though, may be perfectly obedient and accomplish everything their new owner wants. However, this is true of animals too which also retain a de facto control over their muscle movements. Some animals are obedient and need little encouragement to make them do what an owner wants them to do; others are stubborn and need cajoling or physically disciplining. Yet this fact has no bearing on the fact that humans own animals.

In any case, however, it is not immediately clear how any person is “stuck” with his de facto control over his own body. He could, as Block points out, commit suicide and thus permanently and irrevocably sever his will from the physical matter that constitutes his body. Clearly a person does have an option in nature to discontinue his control over his body.

Having disposed of these two powerful arguments – one for and one against voluntary slavery – which have, as was suggested earlier, dominated the topic of voluntary slavery, let us proceed now to discuss what may be a more problematic issue when it comes to voluntary slavery. This issue it that of enforcement of voluntary slavery arrangements – that is, if a voluntary slave runs away, what could or should be done about it? Before we address this, however, let us first discuss, as a brief tangent, how proliferate voluntary slave contracts are likely to be in a libertarian society – are arrangements of voluntary slavery likely to be fringe and marginal or would their legal permission open a Pandora’s Box that would suddenly lead to all manner of “exploitation” of the weak by the strong? The most likely scenario where this would be possible is, clearly, with labour contracts, i.e. contracts of employment. If we allowed voluntary slavery, so a retort would go, wouldn’t that lead to employers demanding arrangements of slavery from their employees? “Hungry? Be my slave!” “Need a home? Be my slave!” “Need money for your children? Be my slave!” And so on. However, such an argument could only be premised upon the Marxist view that the fate of the worker is to sink ever lower and lower and is utterly dependent upon what the capitalists offer him – a view that we know to be false from nearly 200 years of economic progress that the standard of living of even the lowest earning worker has risen significantly. Employers are compelled, through competitive bidding, to offer a real wage rate that is markedly higher than one that provides subsistence. We can surmise that people do not enter contracts of voluntary slavery (or the closely related arrangement of indentured servitude) today not because of legality but because, for the employee, even the lowest free wage is able to offer a position that is far more attractive than an arrangement of voluntary slavery. Indeed, one of the overwhelming reasons why compulsory slavery was gradually abolished was because for the employer or would-be slave owner it was less expensive and more productive to hire free labour than to trade in slaves – and that it is better to risk having an employee quit and to hire another rather than try to “own” the original employee. It is therefore likely that slavery, voluntary or otherwise, would only return in any significant measure if society itself was to revert to primitive economic conditions of low capital accumulation and low productivity per person.

Before leaving this topic we might as well consider the relationship between the trading of one’s body, i.e. voluntary slavery, and contracts of employment. Rothbard offers the following explanation:

A person’s labor service is alienable, but his will is not. It is most fortunate, moreover, for mankind that this is so; for this alienability means (1) that a teacher or physician or whatever can sell his labor services for money; and (2) that workers can sell their labor services in transforming goods to capitalists for money. If this could not be done, the structure of capital required for civilization could not be developed, and no one’s vital labor services could be purchased by his fellow men. The distinction between a man’s alienable labor service and his inalienable will may be further explained: a man can alienate his labor service, but he cannot sell the capitalized future value of that service. In short, he cannot, in nature, sell himself into slavery and have this sale enforced – for this would mean that his future will over his own person was being surrendered in advance. In short, a man can naturally expend his labor currently for someone else’s benefit, but he cannot transfer himself, even if he wished, into another man’s permanent capital good. For he cannot rid himself of his own will, which may change in future years and repudiate the current arrangement.4

This explanation is erroneous. The reason why contracts of employment are valid is nothing to do with the “alienability” of the labour service. A service is an intangible thing and cannot be disconnected or alienated from anything as it is not already in the form of any kind of connection or embodiment. Rather, the validity of the contract of employment rests on the fact that the individual employed has agreed to a conditional receipt of money, the condition being that he carry out certain tasks as stipulated by his employer. If those tasks are not completed then title to the money does not pass from the employer to the employee. If they are completed, on the other hand, then title to the money does pass and the employee can enforce this title as a result of having fulfilled the condition. This explanation is in accordance with (and, indeed, is identical to) the title-transfer theory of contract that Rothbard espouses also in The Ethics of Liberty. Contracts of voluntary slavery, however concern the transfer of the title to the person’s physical body. This too may also be made for money. A may agree with B to transfer a sum of money to B’s family if B transfers title of his (B’s) body to A. Moreover, such a transfer may result in the value of B’s ability as a labourer being capitalised, so that B could, if he wished, sell A for that capital value to another person. But a contract of employment and a contract of voluntary slavery, while they have obvious similarities, concern the transfer of different physical entities and are not distinguished by any “alienable” labour service on the one hand nor an “inalienable” will on the other.

Let us therefore proceed now to discuss the issue of the enforcement of voluntary slave contracts or agreements and why it is this topic which is actually the difficult one when comprehending voluntary slavery arrangements. Dealing first of all with the enactment of transfers of ownership over the physical matter that constitutes one’s body, it is not necessary for the voluntary slave to be in receipt of a sum of money from the potential owner – i.e. he does not literally need to sell himself. He could quite easily make a gift of himself to someone else and this is, as we have examined elsewhere, perfectly in accordance with libertarian contract law. However, we can surmise that in many, if not most, cases a sum of money will be transferred in order for the owner to purchase the voluntary slave from himself. One objection concerning this is scenario is the fact that if the sum of money is transferred to the voluntary slave and the contract is therefore concluded, because that sum of money belongs to the voluntary slave and the voluntary slave belongs to the owner then surely the money too belongs to the owner again. Can’t the latter simply take back what he gave? This is certainly possible but it would, as Block points out, simply point to the stupidity of the voluntary slave and not necessarily to any impossibility of concluding the contract in the first place. However, the more likely scenario is that the contract will require the funds to be paid to a third party – most likely the family of the voluntary slave. In this instance the funds would be irretrievable by the owner once the contract is concluded. But even if it the funds were paid to the voluntary slave himself the contract could easily stipulate that the voluntary slave retains title over the funds and that the owner must grant him time to enjoy spending them. Contracts for voluntary slavery-type arrangements need not be an all or nothing thing and the voluntary slave is quite entitled to reserve specific rights to himself that would preclude the transfer of full, outright ownership over his body to another person. Whatever the specific content of a voluntary slavery contract, however, we can surmise with little doubt that courts will require a standard of proof of transfer greater than that required for transfers of ownership of dead objects – such as written documents and witnesses etc. – rather than simple oral declarations and exchanges. Courts are likely to want to be as sure as possible of the intentions of the parties before enforcing such an arrangement.

Second, assuming that a voluntary slavery contract is valid, the problem surrounding any “enforcement” of this contract rests on the fact that the whole concept of contractual rights requires there to be two continually recognised legal parties to the contract. However, when the voluntary slave transfers outright and irrevocable title over his body (and with it all rights and possessions that he owns) to another person, he ceases to be a legal person in any sense of the concept at all. The voluntary slave is now akin to being simply a piece of property akin to an object like a plank of wood. Rights, however, are not enforced against pieces of property but against other legal persons. What the owner of the voluntary slave now possesses is the right to exclude all other legal persons from the body of the slave that now constitutes his property and to seek legal sanction where third parties interfere with this property. In other words, his right is enforceable against other people and not against the voluntary slave who is now not a legal person. Thus, the right of ownership which the owner receives is not, in fact, any kind of right enforceable against the voluntary slave at all.

If, therefore, the voluntary slave runs away from the owner what would be the response of the law? The answer is simply nothing at all. The owner has no legal right of enforcement against the slave at all for the slave is not a legal person and legal enforcement exists only between legal persons. As the voluntary slave is not a legal person and is simply a piece of property he can commit no crime nor any breach of contract by running away. His running away is, rather, simply an extra-legal event akin to losing one’s car keys or having a pet run away. Such a situation may be very unfortunate for you but you would not, in these circumstances, go to court to enforce judgment against the runaway keys or the absconding pet in order for them to be returned to you. Rather you simply have to try and find them yourself. The situation is no business of any court unless and until there is any interference in your property by a third party who is a legal person and it is against this person against whom your title to the property concerned is enforceable.

Does this fact present any obstacle for voluntary slave contracts? Unless one accepts the doctrine of inalienability then clearly it does not. The situation is no different from that where a person is deceased. If you are, say, a family member who comes to own the body of a deceased relative your right over that body is not enforceable against the deceased individual; the right you possess is to exclude anyone else from that body. The only difference is that, with voluntary slavery, a person has extinguished his legal personage while remaining alive after.

It is submitted, however, that the far more likely scenario with voluntary slavery contracts is that the voluntary slave will continue to be recognised as a legal person with a specific legal identity and, most likely, will reserve specific rights should the contract be broken. This is because, in the event of an absconding by the voluntary slave the owner would retain the advantage of being able to resort to legal sanction and, moreover, in the event that transfer of ownership of his body is conditional the voluntary slave can break the contract when the owner fails to fulfil that condition. Let us therefore proceed to examine the enforcement of voluntary slavery contracts as any other contract would be enforced between continuingly recognised legal persons.

Practically all discussions of voluntary slavery make at least the tacit assumption that should a voluntary slave decide to escape from his now owner then the appropriate remedy should be that the voluntary slave is forcibly returned to the owner – so in the lexicon of contract law, the appropriate remedy is specific performance. This is undoubtedly a hangover from considerations of what used to occur with involuntary slavery. The slaves did not wish to be there in the first place; if they ran away their forced return did not alter the situation – they were still unwilling workers and we can surmise that whatever the owner was getting out of them after their return would have been the equivalent of what he was getting out of them before they escaped. However, our topic here is voluntary slave contracts and we can surmise that the voluntary nature of the contract itself does have a bearing upon the benefits of the contract to the voluntary slave owner. We see that in contract law generally, which concerns only voluntary relations, specific performance is often considered to be the least viable remedy, particularly in contracts that involve a personal working relationship such as those between employer and employee or a contract to provide services. This is precisely because the benefits to be gained from services performed under a contract depend, in a large measure, upon the relationship between the contracting parties and their continued willingness to serve each other. To compel specific performance in instances where this relationship has soured or where this willingness has otherwise been lost usually makes a bad situation worse. But even where this is not the case and the contract concerns delivery of physical property rather than a service specific performance is not always available. If the defendant is unable to deliver a specific piece of property it may be because it has been lost or destroyed. But it also may simply be that an alternative form of recovery is easier (i.e. cheaper) than trying to extract the particular piece of property that was the subject matter of the contract. At all times the plaintiff will normally seek, and the court will be prepared to enforce, the option that most ably restores to the plaintiff that which he owns for the lowest possible cost. Very often this will amount to the payment to the plaintiff of a sum of money equivalent in value to the property that cannot be rendered (and in the case of services to permit the plaintiff to seek those services elsewhere from a more willing party). In other words, just because you have contracted to receive something does not mean that the court will grant you receipt of that specific good or service and, moreover, nor are you actually likely to be interested in receiving it if the attempt to do is onerous. We can surmise in the vast majority of cases that the benefit to be gained by a voluntary slave owner from specific performance of a voluntary slave contract where the slave is no longer willing is likely to be greatly diminished compared to the situation where the slave remains willing.

So what is likely to happen, then, in cases where a voluntary slave runs away from his owner and wishes to break the contract? Let us recall that what the slave has done is to abscond with the owner’s property, which in this case is the physical matter that constitutes his own body. He has, in effect, stolen from the owner although we may like to note that outright theft may not appear in all circumstances and, like contracting parties, negotiations to dissolve the contract peacefully may be more frequent. The precise remedy available to the plaintiff may depend upon the precise nature of the contract. The contract itself may, of course, specify remedial title transfers in the event of a breach. Assuming it does not, however, if the contract concerned required the owner to transfer a sum of money in exchange for receiving title to the voluntary slave’s body, the most likely remedy is to compel the runaway slave to pay that sum back to the owner, restoring the latter to his original, pre-contractual position. Where, however, there was no initial payment of money then payment of some other equivalent to the capitalised value of the service that the voluntary slave would have rendered to the owner may be ordered by the court. This may, of course, result in de facto continuing slavery if the voluntary slave is required to turn over the best part of his annual salary while working as a free individual in another occupation. But we must recall here the equivalent situation where gifts of ordinary property are made by one person to another. If A makes a gift to B, A cannot then change his mind and demand the gift back. If he takes it he is required to either return it or pay B a sum of money equivalent to its value. The decision to make the gift, contra Rothbard, binds for all of time A’s will vis-à-vis the title of that property. A does not have a right to change his mind and repudiate his decision without facing consequences. Likewise, therefore, where the property concerned is A’s own body so too will there be consequences if, having gifted that property to B, A attempts to take it back for himself. This may indicate that making a gift of one’s own body is, perhaps, gravely foolish or, at best, necessitates a thorough degree of consideration. But in terms of strict legality there is no reason to suspend the consequences that flow from A repudiating his own, freely made decision – a repudiation that would involve simply shifting a loss from himself to B.

A further element of enforcement of voluntary slave contracts is, of course, whether the voluntary slave could enforce the contract in the event that it is the owner who is the breaching party. Let us say, for example, that A agrees with B that B will pay A’s family a sum of money each month in return for A transferring ownership over his body to B. If B ceases to make these payments then A can either enforce the contract or seek to have it rescinded.

Conclusion

What we can see from all of this, therefore, is that while in terms of strict legality there appears to be no bar in libertarianism towards entering arrangements of voluntary slavery, any institution of voluntary slavery is likely to be markedly different from the institution of involuntary slavery and is fraught with many more issues and complications. Hopefully this essay has outlined and explored some of the main topics for further consideration in voluntary slavery, while revealing something of its nature and the sorts of arrangements that may be entered into (if at all) in a free society.

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1Murray N Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty, 134-6 (footnotes omitted).

2Walter Block, Toward a Libertarian Theory of Inalienability: A Critique of Rothbard, Barnett, Smith, Kinsella, Gordon and Epstein, JLS Volume 17, no.2, 29-85.

3Randy E Barnett, Contract Remedies and Inalienable Rights, Social Philosophy & Policy 4, no. 1, pp. 188-90.

4Rothbard, pp. 40-41.

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

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

The Standard and Burden of Proof

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

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

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

Vicarious Liability

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

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

Personal Rights and Property Rights and Trusts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concurrent Liability

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

1. What are the property arrangements between the parties?

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

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

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

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

Unjust Enrichment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restrictive Transfers and Perpetuities

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

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

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

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

A Final Map of Libertarian Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Three – Consent and Contract

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will transfer £100 to you on Thursday”

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

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

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

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

Types of Contract

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breach of Contract and Contractual Remedies

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

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

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

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

Minor Considerations

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

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

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

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

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

View the video version of this post.

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

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

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

4See Rothbard, p. 51, note 1; Murray N Rothbard, Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution, Cato Journal 2, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 55-99, reprinted in Economic Controversies, pp. 367-418, at p. 409.

5Rothbard, Ethics, p. 144.

 

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

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

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

Legal Persons and Self-Ownership

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

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

Original Appropriation of Goods

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

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

The first criterion – that there should be a tangible good – might seem trite, but it is worth emphasising that there needs to be matter that is the subject of a physical conflict. While contracts, as we shall see in part three, can deal with property that is not yet in existence but is proposed to come into the ownership of one of the contracting parties in the future, it is clear that claims of present ownership must be over existing goods. Not only will this requirement exclude unreal or imagined entities or objects, but so too will it not capture thoughts, feelings and ideas. Space precludes us from examining in detail whether libertarian legal systems will recognise so-called “intellectual property” but here we must assume that it will not and that all claim of ownership will be over real, tangible, existing goods. Secondly, it should be self-evident that only a legal person can take legal ownership of goods. Objects and animals, as well as not possessing the right to self-ownership, cannot also possess the right to own goods external to them. A banana, a mere unconscious object that cannot own itself a fortiori cannot be said to have rights of ownership over other such objects. Self-ownership is, therefore, a pre-requisite for owning something else. Thirdly, a legal person must have put the good to productive use. In libertarian theory, the first user-occupier of a good is the one who is able to claim the right to original appropriation of that good and, thus, ownership over it3.

A libertarian legal system will therefore have to determine precisely which actions will satisfy the demonstration of putting a good to a productive use. Is, for example, touching an object enough to satisfy this criteria, endowing the individual who laid his finger upon the good not only the exclusive right to their enjoyment but also the obligation to ensure that it does not interfere with the person or property of anyone else? Or is something more required? The key test is likely to be whether a given action produces anothergood from the original good, in other words it is diverted from delivering one stream of utility to delivering another. This could be something as simple as moving an object from one place to another, gathering logs to use as firewood, removing weeds from soil to plant seeds, and in most cases simple possession may suffice to prove one’s claim to title. The importance of this criterion lies in the fact that a person must be able to demonstrate that he was the first who recognised the good as a scarce and valuable entity and so deliberately laboured in order to ensure that the good provided its highest valued utility. Fourthly, the productive use of the good must extend over the entirety of the physical good claimed and thus serve to clearly ring-fence the good from matter that is not put to productive use. As we said in part one, the purpose of rights and ownership is to avoid or otherwise resolve conflicts arising from scarcity – this cannot be done unless the matter over which a person claims a right is encircled by a clear boundary, a red line over which people know they must not cross. For most self-contained objects, this will not present too much of a problem. One log of wood for instance, in bounded within the physical limits of the good itself – when I move it from the wood to my home in order to use as firewood it is clear that the extent of my productivity is limited to that log and not to an indeterminate quantity of the forest. It becomes more difficult when this is not the case. One example that is used frequently as an objection to the homesteading principle is if several people are swimming or sailing to an ownerless island does the first one to reach it claim the entire island? Or if a person stands on a cliff and urinates into the sea, is he entitled to ownership of the entire ocean? The answer is no, because the extent of the person’s physical presence has not served to ring-fence the entire island or the entire ocean within his sphere of productivity. The person’s valuable ends were achieved without any productive effort being extended beyond his immediate location. If a person wishes to claim ownership over the entire island or the ocean he must be able to demonstrate the extent of his productivity over that entire matter. His ownership will stop at the point where evidence of productive use also stops, and the matter within that sphere of productivity will be ring-fenced. There will be cases where a person may have exerted (at least in his mind) productive effort but there is insufficient evidence to prove that such an effort has ring-fenced property. The most typical type of example will be on boundaries of homesteaded land. If a person has homesteaded an allotment, that part of the garden where crops have been planted and are growing will clearly be part of the ring-fenced allotment. However, at the boundary of the allotment, will say, evidence of a dropped tool a few metres from the nearest crop, or a single footprint made when the gardener stood back to view his work, serve to extend the boundary of the homesteaded land to these locations? Clearly, if the gardener had erected fencing to close in his land then this would itself consist of productive use and this problem would not exist. A related problem is where productive use has apparently extended to only part of a good yet an individual alleges that the whole good is necessary to fulfil his ends. An example is if I draw water daily from a small lake by standing on its edge and then someone else begins to draw water from the other side, can I complain that this latter person is violating my private property? A libertarian court is likely to conclude that the answer is no as if the entirety of the lake was of value to me then I should have extended my productive efforts to ring fence the whole thing. Instead, my only productive acts extended to a small portion of the water available each day thus I did not demonstrate that the remainder of the water was of any value to me. Water rights are, of course, a complicated issue, especially with regards to flowing water but we can acknowledge that in clear cases where it was possible to fully homestead a good and that opportunity was not taken a person cannot later complain that his rights were usurped.

Furthermore, the lack of clear boundaries of productive action would lead to obvious absurdities. Whenever a person puts anything to productive use this matter will be connected to the entire Earth – nay, the entire universe. Was the first person who trod on the virgin soil of the planet able to claim ownership over the entire thing? Fifthly and finally, the good must, of course, be ownerless and no one else must have previously satisfied the criteria we have just elaborated. If another person has done so then this latter person’s title trumps that of the claimant. An important consideration in this regard is that a libertarian legal system will have to determine which actions of a person who owns a good are sufficient to determine the abandonment of and, hence, the loss of ownership over that good. This is important for two reasons – first, to determine if a subsequent person may extend productive use over the good and thus claim ownership over it without contravening the rights of the previous owner; and secondly, to determine if the first owner is liable in the event that the good physically interferes in someone else’s property. If, for example, a person builds a house and, after a period of time, abandons it and falls into disrepair it may subsequently collapse into a neighbouring dwelling. If the original owner of the collapsed property still owns it then the owner of the damaged property may be able to sue him; if not, and the collapsed house is ownerless then the collapse is akin to an act of nature (such as a tree falling or a lightning strike) and the owner of the neighbouring, damaged property will be without remedy against anyone else. As we shall see, the contract is one method of exercising the abandonment of a good by transferring it to another individual.

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is a Law?

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

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

Law and Enforceability

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

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

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

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

Legal Systems

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

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

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

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

Law and Objectivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A:       “Competing law courts”

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

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

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

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

Legislation or Judge Made Law?

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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