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.

View the video version of this post.

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.

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Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Three – Consent and Contract

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will transfer £100 to you on Thursday”

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

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

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

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

Types of Contract

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breach of Contract and Contractual Remedies

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

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

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

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

Minor Considerations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5Rothbard, Ethics, p. 144.