The Nature and Origin of Rights, Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Nature and Origin of Rights, Part One

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There is nothing that highlights more the uphill struggle faced by libertarians than an old joke which is directed at the economics profession in general:

How many economists does it take to change a lightbulb? None – the market will take care of it.

Unlike our statist counterparts, as proponents of the free market we have no precise design for the solutions of particular issues and problems. We do not have an energy plan, a transport plan, a housing plan or a healthcare plan. Rather, we believe that freely acting individuals, endowed with private property rights, will find the solutions that utilise the scarce resources that we have in the most efficient way possible. Indeed, when asked the (almost tiresome) question “who will build the roads?” we don’t, strictly, know that a free market will produce any roads whatsoever. There may, in fact, be some better transport solution that compulsory government road funding prevents us from discovering. This is, in fact, the entire point of the free market – that there is no grand, overarching plan with particular solutions that are imposed upon everyone else from on high. Moreover, any kind of centralised plan or desire for the government control of goods and services has always presupposed the existence of industries and products, such as roads, that were invented by freely acting individuals.

This key aspect of the free market – a complete lack of centralised design of products, services and entire industries – is not limited to the substantive configuration of resources. Rather, as we shall attempt to argue at length in this two-part series of essays, it extends also to the very concepts and institutions that uphold a free market order – in particular, laws, rights, property, non-aggression. Part of the question we wish to explore here, then, is if we, today, had to the opportunity to sweep aside the entire mantra of statist oppression, would the institutions that we put in its place be subject to some kind of design by libertarians or would they also be subject to some kind of decentralised action by freely acting individuals? In other words, would we come along and say “this individual has rights”; “this object is property”; “this act is aggression”? More potently, however, we need to explore whether the nature and origin of concepts such as rights, property, aggression, and conflicts lend themselves to some kind of conscious design or whether they depend upon the behaviour of freely acting individuals in order for their true meaning to be realised. Once we have determined this we will be able to conclude whether it is only by recognising the dependence of these concepts upon freely acting individuals that a genuine libertarian society be built.

Some readers will recognise that we are following here a line of epistemological thinking propounded by F A Hayek, mostly in Law, Legislation and Liberty, as to the appropriate use of rationalism in understanding and framing societal institutions – i.e., is our rationality, our ability to reason and to act purposefully, better suited to constructing and designing social institutions, or rather, are these institutions instead the product of some kind of “spontaneous order”? If the answer is the latter then the focus of our rational endeavours should be to gain comprehension, insight and understanding into elements of human interaction that have already been built and not to recreate these elements anew.

Let us begin with some simple examples in order to illustrate what we mean by this. The first example we shall use is language. Any language that we speak is a complicated thing, with lots of different words and lots of different rules for using those words. However, language itself and the very vast majority of specific languages were not invented explicitly by anyone. Rather, they grew up through millennia as a result of individual people striving to communicate ideas to each other. The meanings of words but also the concepts of sentences and grammar also developed without any centralised plan and before anyone acknowledged consciously the precise forms and structures they were using. For example, if, years ago, one of the first humans said “I will throw this ball”, neither he nor his partners in dialogue would have known explicitly that he was using a subject, a verb and an object to create what we now call a sentence. If he elaborated and said “I will throw this red ball” he would not have known that he just inserted what we now call an adjective. Yet anyone he spoke to would have understood the ideas that he was trying to communicate in the sentence. Moreover, if he tried to say something like “ball thrown I red” those listening to him would probably recognise that he was talking utter nonsense – but they would not necessarily be able to say precisely why this sentence is wrong. Indeed, even the idea behind concepts such and nouns and verbs probably never even entered these people’s minds – in the same way that they do not explicitly enter the minds of the vast majority of people who communicate through language today. It was only after many centuries of languages being used and developed that linguists came along in order to study the phenomenon of language systematically and to develop the rules and concepts of grammar, writing and speech. Yet, crucially, the role of the linguist or grammarian was not to invent or design these rules, or to reconfigure language as a whole. Rather, his role was to gain insight and understanding into a process that already existed – to gain rational comprehension of a phenomenon that was of no single human’s construction. For example, an adjective is a particular concept that concerns the use of words in order to describe nouns. For example, a red ball; a tall boy; an old lady. By calling these words adjectives the linguist did not invent the concept of an adjective. Rather, the concept itself already existed as a phenomenon of human interaction for which the linguist only provided a label for us to identify it and distinguish it from other phenomena. Thus the label “adjective” aids the endeavour of gaining rational insight and understanding into the phenomenon of language and does not amount to the construction of anything that was not already there. If, on the other hand, linguists tried to reinvent these concepts or to attempt to apply them to other phenomena then we can see easily that we would run into all sorts of trouble. Let us imagine that a budding, pioneering linguist comes along with the aim to reinvent the rules of language, to undergo a reconstruction in order make it more coherent and, no doubt, more “rational”. After all, he is a scientist of the human race, a race that has managed to build everything from enormous craft that fly into space all the way down to tiny computers that fit into your hand. Surely he can master the design of something as simple as how we speak to one another? Let us say that he decrees that an adjective should describe not the noun in a sentence but, rather, the verb. So in the sentence “I will throw this red ball” this linguist would claim that the word “red” should actually describe the verb “throw” – so that the quality of throwing is, in some way, red. Or in the sentence “I will drink this hot coffee” the word “hot” describes the act of drinking rather than the condition of the coffee. Clearly such a reinvention would lead to utter nonsense and a complete breakdown of the purpose of language, which is the successful communication of an idea, i.e. making yourself understood by another party. The concepts that the linguist identifies, such as adjectives, are not open to his reconstruction – to him they are phenomena that already exist as a given, much like the fact that the sun rises and water flows down. The only difference is that the phenomena associated with language arose out of the interaction of many millions of human beings across centuries rather than straight out of the natural world. These concepts the linguist identifies describe a strand of reality that are already there for him to identify and to understand; any attempt by him to impose an alternative meaning or definition of these concepts results in something completely different from their original nature.

Whether or not alternative languages can, in fact, be designed, is beside the point. Languages have been designed explicitly, with Esperanto being the most notable, although any designed language has failed to gain any significant use. Our point here, however, is that existing languages are not the product of design or reinvention and that the concepts we use to identify and understand them are also not invented phenomena. Our attempt to engage in such a reinvention must necessarily result in something completely different from that which already exists.

In order to explore this further let us take another example of a social phenomenon such as prices. Indeed, prices are a classic example of a social institution that, unlike language, has been subject to a kind of constructivist reinvention. The phenomenon of prices appeared as a result of millions of private, bilateral transactions millennia before anyone actually stopped to determine what prices actually were and how individual prices are set at the levels they are. Just as the linguist used his capacity for rational analysis to determine the elements of language, so do did the economist approach the concept of prices with the desire to comprehend and gains insights into this reality, not to construct anything new (an endeavour which was only accomplished sufficiently after the realisation of the law of marginal utility). What was learnt was that a price is the exchange ratio between two goods that results from the competing valuations of those who supply a good versus those who demand it with another good (usually money). The specific price is set between the valuations of the marginal buyer and the marginal seller. The effect of a price at this level was that the willing supply and willing demand for a good were equalised.

What happens, however, when we deflect our rational thinking away from gaining comprehension of this phenomenon and embrace, instead, the desire to gain control of and “create” or (as economists usually say) “fix” prices? This false, constructivist approach looked only at surface level phenomena of prices that were manifest in the fact that the act of pricing was largely carried out by entities that were sellers of commodities and buyers of labour – in other words, businesses. This, aided by other confusions such as the paradox of value – the conundrum as to why a diamond costs more than water when the latter is infinitely more useful to mankind – led to the conclusion that prices were simply declared (as opposed to estimated) by sellers and/or were merely the arbitrary and capricious results of unrestrained greed. It would follow from these falsehoods that the price of a good could be manipulated at will or established by decree. Yet it is clear that this conception of prices has entirely different ramifications from the previous one that we outlined. With these new, constructed prices their ultimate influence is not the individual interactions of all of the millions of people attempting to fulfil their purposes but rather the preoccupations of those who decree them (i.e. the state), which are mainly political. Most of the famous cases of price fixing were designed to counteract the effects of rampant inflationism, such as the Emperor Diocletian’s fourth century Edict on Maximum Prices and President Nixon’s price and wage controls in the 1970s. The results of these prices too are markedly – even catastrophically – different. If the decreed price is too high relative to the price that would be set by supply and demand then an unsold surplus of the good would accumulate; if the price was too low then a chronic shortage would ensue. In both cases the quantity demanded and the quantity supplied are shifted out of balance, resulting in economic turmoil – as it was in the 1970s when Nixon’s price controls exacerbated the effects of the OAPEC oil embargo, leading to an acute shortage of gasoline (which, of course, promoted further government intervention in the form of selective government rationing, the 55mph speed limit and the moral degradation that occurs as a result of the destruction of the supplier/customer relationship).

Under both conceptions of prices – the un-designed and the designed – all of the surface phenomena of prices are constant. Price tags are still on the goods (if there are any goods) and money still changes hands. Yet it is clear that the difference between the two concepts is to encapsulate two entirely different strands of reality that each have vastly different origins and motivations, and vastly different consequences. In moving from the first conception to the latter, the concept of price has been changed from meaning the exchange ratio that results from the interaction of supply and demand to basically meaning the exchange ratio that is ordered by the state.

It is clear from this, therefore, that a concept, such and nouns, verbs, prices, which developed as a result of human interaction, cannot simply be changed at will or by agreement without entirely undermining its essence. Indeed with prices not even an explicit agreement amongst all of the consenting citizenry as to what a particular price should be would circumvent this fact because the resulting exchange ratio would still not accord with the reality that the concept of price tries to capture, which is the exchange ratio that results from supply and demand. What we can also begin to see is that any attempt to redesign or reconstruct these phenomena destroys their service for free, individual people and instead places them at the service of the state and is therefore antithetical to liberty. We can see this more clearly in a third example of this type of concept which is money itself. The phenomenon of money – the generally accepted medium exchange – appeared through millions of bilateral exchanges before anyone stopped to think about precisely what they were doing when they handed over, say, lumps of metal like gold or silver in exchange for stuff they could eat or use as shelter. Money was something created as a result of human interaction but nobody designed or invented money. The product of this was a medium of exchange that served reliably as a store of value, as a unit of account and as a major bulwark of sustainable economic progress. All of the monetary issues we experience today – the business cycle, inflation, and a grossly unstable financial system – stem from the attempt to recreate the concept of money as something that is created and enforced by the state, an endeavour that has not only resulted in the catastrophic effects we just outlined but also a tremendous loss of liberty as governments have been able to fund their bloated operations without resort to regular taxation.

Bearing all of this in mind, then, what is the nature of other sociological concepts which form the core of libertarian theory? These are concepts such as property, rights, obligations, laws, conflicts, and aggression. Are these phenomena which appeared gradually over many hundreds of years through social interaction? Or were they the explicitly designed product of, say, a wise and benevolent ruler who sought to create order out of chaos? We shall argue here that concepts such as rights and obligations are indeed of the same ilk as prices – they appeared over millennia as a result of millions of humans attempting to fulfil their individual purposes. The concepts were not the product of explicit, human construction; rather, they were a reality that already existed before anyone consciously thought of the matter. The purpose of our rationality is to reflect upon this reality, understand and comprehend what was occurring, and from this understanding fashion these concepts in order to explain and describe this reality. Any attempt to reconstruct them anew will, as we shall see, destroy their real value to the freely acting individual and instead place them in the service of the state.

Let us recall that the question of rights and property only arise because of conflicts that result from scarcity – the fact that two or more individuals cannot satisfy their ends owing to shortage of means. Rights and obligations over physical matter that is designated as “property” are the solution to these conflicts. In other words, rights and obligations only arose because individual, rationally acting beings, incurred a reciprocal recognition in a particular situation that physical means available were not sufficient to satisfy the ends of each, hence one had to yield and refrain from action and the other could act. The source of a conflict was the fact that one of the parties would have to suffer a loss of *value* – and end worse than the one he sought – if he had to yield to the other party, who, in turn, would have his value realised. These conflicts and their prescribed resolutions are endemic to the situation of humans as social animals. It is highly unlikely that two humans ever interacted without running into some kind of conflict over scarce means, particularly as primitive man suffered from the scarcity of the most basic of needs far more than we do today. Hence social rules are likely to be as old as humans themselves. These conflicts and their resolution through a system of rules began long before anyone actually explicitly enunciated that which was occurring. Indeed the words “rights”, “ownership” and what they were may not even have been known to anyone who sought them, in much as the same way as no one knew what a verb or a noun are until long after people actually began to communicate through language. Nobody at any point woke up one morning and said ‘Gosh, I believe it would be awfully nice if everyone had the right to private property!” as if it was an entirely new creation, nor did anyone ever explicitly “agree” the same thing. The earliest rules were probably acknowledged and understood tacitly with communication through body language. Later, as the earliest civilisations were born, customary legal systems developed through appeals by the conflicting parties for adjudication by a plurality. They made this appeal because, in the long run (and according to their own valuations), ad hoc conciliation is uncertain while resolution by violence is both uncertain and costly and dangerous. Indeed, we might say that although this process requires a degree of reflective ability of the plurality’s members, the legal rules and principles that crystallised depended upon a) their ability to address the situation that identified by the rational actors to which they need to be applied, b) the willingness of the parties to yield to them and thus avoid violence, and c) their ability to serve as a guide to behaviour in order to avoid similar incursions in the future. Crucially, there was no centralised force that had the authority to either decree or enforce the law, such authority, where it existed, resulting from usurpation. Rather, adjudicators had to earn and maintain their reputation in the knowledge that parties could seek justice elsewhere and that they – the adjudicators – might too, one day, be involved a conflict and stand to be judged. To this extent, therefore, the dispensation of impartial and principled justice resulted from self-interest. Indeed, we might say that the whole edifice of consistently and impartially applied legal rules existed solely because, in the long run, these things were the cheapest option for people to fulfil their ends. In other words, that agreeing to resolve conflicts peacefully through a system of rules was, in the long run, the best way for people to maximise their wellbeing. The result of this was, of course, the development of society – the peaceful co-operation between individuals seeking to fulfil their needs and better their lives.

Indeed, it is important to stress that a well ordered and functioning society was the product of customary social rules and was not their precursor – the peaceful resolution and avoidance of conflicts is what permits social co-operation, either primitively or under the division of labour, to flourish, and it only did so because people desired it. “Society” did not come first in order to fashion and enforce the law or to determine what conflicts were and where they existed and how everybody should behave. We are tempted to address this chicken and egg problem differently today because “society” precedes us and so we also think that it precedes our rights and obligations; we were born into an existing social order that seems to grant and impose these things on us from on high. It certainly true that latecomers to a social order, who, like us, were born in succeeding generations or were formerly outsiders, were likely to find themselves bound by previously enunciated rules. However, the origin of those rules was the perception of conflicts by individual, rationally acting people. So when, today, for example, we extrapolate from these past cases and say that a particular right applies to me and to everyone else in the world it is true that these rules and concepts predated anyone who is alive today so that it appears as though somebody else is either granting us these rights or enforcing these obligations upon us. But even today we can see that rights, obligations and conflicts must originate from the minds of the parties to the dispute that the legal rule seeks to solve. Strictly speaking when we say that “I have the right to private property” what I am really saying is that this right would be enjoyed by me in a hypothetical case where I enter a conflict over a particular good. But just as in the pre-historic cases that crystallised the concept of a right, this conflict would have to be perceived by me in order to be a breach of my rights. Someone taking my property is not theft unless I do not want them to take it; if I am perfectly fine with it then my right is not infringed (indeed, in a world where everyone helped themselves to each other’s stuff as they pleased and everyone had no problem with it no one would even know what a right to private property was). Rape is only rape because a woman (or a man, even) does not want to be penetrated; if he/she doe then it is sexual intercourse. One person injuring another is only assault because the latter does not wish the former to injure him; if the injury is the result of a consensual contact sport or an unusual sexual fetish then it isn’t. A person’s free speech is only infringed because he wants to speak. If, on the other hand, he is an uncontrollable blabbermouth who talks before he thinks then he may welcome the occasional physical restraint from speaking. In all of these cases where the physical act is consensual there is a harmony of interests – the scarce, physical matter available is directed an end that is sought by both parties and thus there is no conflict. The question of rights only arises, however, when the two parties are trying to direct physical matter towards different ends (and also, we might add, when the cost of resolving the matter in this manner is less than the cost to the plaintiff of fulfilling his ends with other means; if you steal from me a paperclip it is probably cheaper for me to buy a new one than it is to sue you for it; the history of fencing laws is illustrative of the changing economic dimension of rights and obligations). In short, because it is my right it is my choice to waive it when someone else’s goals with the same, physical matter are identical to mine.

Let us re-emphasise, therefore, that the nature of these concepts – rights, obligations, conflicts and so on – were revealed to us through rational reflection upon social interaction, and the distillation of common elements and their justification according to common principles uncovered – not created – the formulae that we libertarians cherish today, such as the individual’s right to private property.

Let us turn now to a different, constructivist conception of what rights and obligations may be – that is that these concepts were deliberately created or invoked by specific persons such as monarchs, leaders or intellectuals. It is clear that if the origin of a proposed right is not the resolution of a conflict arising from the competing valuations that exist in the minds of the parties, it must, rather, be something else. There are only two possibilities. First, a third party constructs a right according to what he hypothesises is a conflict between the parties over the property in question when there is in fact no such conflict. In other words, rather than being a party to a conflict himself, this third person looks upon the condition of other people and declares that they are in a conflict with each other that needs to be corrected with a system of rights. The second possibility, which is joined at the hip with the first, is that the conflict over property results from the valuations of a third party or of a group (such as intellectuals) who call for the construction of rights and obligations according to their own direction. In other words, these people want to distribute property rights according to what they want rather than what everybody else wants when everyone else may, in fact, be living in perfect accord with one another. In both cases the concept of a right has been changed from the resolution of a conflict over scarce, physical goods as perceived by the parties into being the resolution of a conflict over the same goods perceived by somebody else. Your rights and obligations are no longer determined by what you, as a freely acting individual want and value; rather they are defined by some other person. This is something that is markedly different, something that changes not only the definition of a right itself but also the definition of specific rights.

An exaggerated example of the first type of “right” – one that is simply imposed – is a right of each person to air. Intuitively, a right to air sounds more than plausible – after all, a person will live for barely minutes if he is not able to breathe. Surely, as some pioneering progressive might say, it is a travesty of justice that we do not all have a right to something as basic as air?! Under the state’s self-appointed mantle that it needs to ensure that we all have enough air to breathe, perhaps we can imagine exclusion zones round each other’s bodies which no one else may breach in case they breathe “your” air in the zone. Or, needless to say, we could imagine countless other ridiculous “solutions” to this non-problem. Rights to air do not exist, of course, because nobody (yet) conflicts over particles of air. The supply is more than sufficient to meet each person’s need without anyone ever coveting the air breathed by someone else. Hence rights and obligations in this scenario are superfluous and any invocation of them is an unwarranted affront to people’s perfectly peaceful behaviour. (The contrary case – that of taking away rights when they are, in fact, demanded, such as with rights to own animals that are members of an “endangered” species – is of the same ilk, but we need not deal with that here).

With the second type of constructed rights, let us take the right to private property which protects one against, say, theft. If, in order to “protect” my property, this right is no longer defined according to my valuation as to how I best want my property directed – i.e. my willingness to “exercise” my right – it must be defined by reference to something else. This can only be what the imposing party, or his intellectual advisers, regard as their valuation as to how the property is best directed. The resulting prohibited action is no way a vindication of my right to private property at all – if I am perfectly happy for my property to be taken in a particular incident and this is clearly evident then there is no discord between me and the alleged thief, nothing that the imposition of a right needs to solve. What has in fact been accomplished is the voiding of a transaction that the imposing party disapproves of according to his valuations at the expense of the valuations of me and the person who took my property. The critical element required for a generation of rights and obligations – a competing valuation over scarce, physical goods – is held by the imposing party, not by the constructed “rights” holder (i.e. me). Hence, the de facto right – i.e. the ability to have property directed to ends according to which one desires – is also held by the imposing party, not by the constructed rights holder, for it is really the imposing party’s valuation regarding this particular piece of property that is vindicated. Theft has now been constructively redefined from meaning a conflict between a property owner and a person who takes it, into a conflict between those two parties and the state. This is clearly anti-libertarian as it subsumes the desires of all of individual people and permits the imposing party to direct everyone else’s property to its desired end. The result is practically the same as the government simply outlawing certain types of voluntary trade, such as drugs or prostitution.

What we will proceed to explore in part two of this series of essays is precisely how this state of affairs – the movement from rights as a product of human interaction to being a product of explicit construction – came about and how devastating it can be to individual liberty.


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What is Liberty?

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While proponents of liberty are often to be found waxing lyrical about its virtues, it is worthwhile taking a step back and discussing what liberty actually means –  that is, rather than attempt to explain why it is just, how do we define it in such a way as to distinguish it from other political philosophies?

First, let us discuss what liberty is emphatically not. It does not mean that one should be able to live a life free of any of the obstacles that humans are burdened with by nature. So for example, “freedom” from hunger, from poverty, from sickness, from the cold, the rain, and so on are all freedoms that humans can achieve only through their power over nature and through the utilisation of nature’s resources in order to provide relief from want. They are problems that would confront any human even if he was the only being in existence and to say that we “need” these freedoms is to state the obvious truism that we do not live in the Garden of Eden. Rather, liberty is a sociological concept – it refers to the relationship that arises between humans in the same world, not between humans and nature. This equivocation is frequently taken advantage of by those whose political orientations are far from libertarian. Not only, for example, is taxation and redistribution justified to provide “freedom” from the very things that we just listed but so too do our political lords and masters abuse the term when discussing the rights that they are kind enough to grant us. The so-called “right to life”, for example, can mean anything from not being killed by another human to the provision of food and shelter to sustain it. A vaguely defined right to “privacy”, i.e. to be left alone by everyone else, has to be “balanced” by my right to “security”, which requires resources from nature in order to achieve it.

Neither also does liberty mean surrendering oneself to some kind of “spontaneous order”; properly understood, the concept of such an order refers to institutions that emerge indirectly as a result of individual humans each pursuing their own unique ends, as opposed to through the direct design or agreement of any handful of them. Money is a case in point. The concept does not warrant the likening of society to some kind of biological organism (where the individual cells and organs have no independent will) nor does it mean that order unfolds in a manner akin to evolution or natural selection, a process that (excluding the possibility of divine intervention) is inherently purposeless. Such analogies are metaphorical in the very strictest sense.

Rather, the sociological concept of liberty arises because a human’s life must be led by using the resources of nature to further the ends that he desires. Individual humans, however, run into conflicts over how these resources should be used as they each want to use the same resources towards their own, competing ends. In other words these resources are interpersonally scarce. This is the starting point of all political philosophy – how to resolve conflicts that arise from the scarcity of resources in the world. Indeed, all political philosophies are little more than attempts to solve this problem. The rights that derive from these solutions are property rights, the strongest of which is ownership – the granting of the power of disposal over a scarce resource to one person at the exclusion of all others. There are two key aspects that we can deduce from this fact. First, those philosophies that view property as oppressive or as an affront to liberty simply dismiss the sociological problem rather than answer it. To outlaw any property at all keeps everyone in the original position of conflict in which we are all fighting over resources. Similarly, abolishing property because it “stops everyone” from using a resource simply begs the question – a property right has to be granted precisely because everyone cannot use the resource. Any widespread attempt to abolish property has merely fallen subject to the “iron law of oligarchy” where a few elite caretakers administer the resources and have to determine the uses to which they are put, with any residual “right” that the Average Joe has to a resource remaining as an empty, hollow shell. Any incisive concept of liberty, therefore, has to accept that other people’s desires to use the means available will be an obstacle in one’s own life and hence it must utilise the concept of property. Secondly, it shows why all consequentialist or utilitarian arguments that attempt to show us why “we” are “better off” with liberty than some alternative miss the point. For the precise problem is that we all think that there are different consequences that are better than someone else’s and so we need to decide whose consequences should prevail with the scarce means available.

The essence of liberty, then, is in how it defines property rights – quite simply, that you are entitled to the ownership of your own body and the external matter of which you are the first user-occupier or the latter’s voluntary successor in title. No one, therefore, can act violently against your own body or against the previously ownerless matter that you brought into use or acquired in trade through voluntary exchange. Within this sphere of ownership you can do anything you want. No, as a free individual you will not have a guaranteed freedom from hunger, from sickness, old age, death and so on (although the free market has been shown to increase a human’s power over nature more than any other system). And the same rights held by every other human will get in your way from time to time, if not all of the time. But only by defining liberty in this manner can libertarianism address the scarcity problem and be ideologically distinct from other attempts to do the same. The justice of liberty defined this way is, of course, another matter.

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