How much should we fear the State?

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Austro-libertarian and other free market oriented economists focus their efforts on explaining the inefficient and destructive nature of the state – how this compulsory aegis of taxation and redistribution retards economic progress and the standard of living, siphoning off ever more productivity into vast bureaucracies that control and regulate every aspect of our lives with a fine toothcomb. The state represents an enormous concentration of wealth and power which could never be attained by a private individual (or even an institution) in a genuine free market, a degree of power and wealth that seeks to extend its destructive influence not only within the territory of the individual state itself, but also overseas with armies, navies and air forces and all of the fire power of destructive weaponry that they can carry.

To any one individual the state can seem like an awesome and overwhelming entity – in the UK, it provides your banking infrastructure, your healthcare, your transportation networks, educates your children and supposedly is the guardian of your health, safety and wellbeing from greedy, unscrupulous companies who might seek to defraud or injure you. Moreover, if you get on the wrong side of the state then its uniformed police force can arrest you, its judges in long black robes can imprison you or freeze your assets and, of course, it promises to do the same to all of the people who attempt to commit a crime against you. And who could not fail to be overwhelmed by the state’s vast and impressive buildings such as the Houses of Parliament or the US Capitol, and the patriotic, flag waving ceremonies such Presidential inaugurations which inspire a turnout of millions?

This essay will in no way dispute the fact that the state is something to be feared (and indisputably so when we consider that the world’s entire nuclear arsenal is sufficient to destroy it tens of times over). What we will explore here, however, is the fact that the monopolistic and overreaching nature of the state is both its source of power yet also its Achilles’ heel – that the state is far from a lean, mean fighting machine and is in fact bumbling, bloated and altogether rather stupid.

First, the state is severely handicapped by its very nature as a monopolistic force. Because it does not need to compete in any areas in which it decides to wade it has a natural tendency to languish in laziness and inefficiency to a degree which renders it extremely vulnerable. For example, the global cyber attacks on state owned and some private computer networks and infrastructure last year are a testament to this. These attacks were made possible by the fact that the operating facilities of the targeted organisations – which included Britain’s National Health Service were outdated and hence highly susceptible to such attacks. Most private consumers of information technology, on the other hand, had had the necessary patches and updates installed. This reliance on out of date technology seems endemic, spreading also to areas which are nominally private but which are heavily supported by the state such as banking. According to entrepreneur Simon Black (who started his own bank when he got so fed up with the service offered by established banks), the Society for Worldwide Interbank Telecommunication or “SWIFT”, which is the premier global financial network, uses Windows Vista as its platform – an operating system which Microsoft no longer supports. Domestic infrastructure seems to be even worse. In the UK, most salary and business payments rely on the BACS network which dates from the 1960s and still, in our age of instant communication, takes three days to transfer funds between bank accounts. How is it possible that vast organisations such as Britain’s National Health Service and SWIFT are basically using technology that is more outdated than that available to any private individual who recently bought a laptop or smartphone? The answer, of course, is that these organisations are simply shorn of any competitive reason to innovate or to stay ahead of the game. Without the threat of losses as a result of the continual supply of tax dollars they are devoid of any reason to maintain the highest standards in order to ensure that they are efficient and up to date. Such lack of standards spreads also to the personnel in these organisations. Bureaucrats, who are more or less promised a job for life so long as the avoid making a major mistake, have little incentive to develop their knowledge and skills and so are unlikely to ever be as smart as private entrepreneurs who always need to keep a sharp eye on the game. This is one of the reasons why (in spite of all of the hullaballoo from politicians seeking election) tax and regulatory loopholes will always exist – because the people finding and exploiting them have both greater ability and incentive than those who are supposed to close them. This is not to imply, of course, that politics is not a competitive arena. However, the nature of competition in politics is very different from the nature of competition in the free market. In the latter, people are competing to create more wealth for the benefit of consumers and so it is a positive sum game – one person’s gain does not depend upon another’s loss. It is true, of course, that in a particular industry one company may prosper while others go bankrupt, and obviously there can only be one CEO of any particular company at a time. But even if a person is beaten to the position of CEO of one company the process of wealth creation itself will allow plenty more enterprises to be started in order to exploit opportunities which have not yet been explored. In the free market, one door closed is two more opened. Politics, however, is decidedly a zero sum game. The power possessed by one individual is necessarily taken from another, and money given to one set of beneficiaries has necessarily been taxed (i.e. confiscated) from another. There can only be one President of the United States or one Prime Minister of Great Britain – the process of politics will not create an unlimited number of great and powerful states in which the opportunities to become either President or Prime Minister are multiplied. Therefore, the budding politician must necessarily gain from what anyone else loses and he must make sure that no one else is able to beat him to the top job. Thus, there is seldom any genuine co-operation or betterment in the political sphere as, ultimately, everyone is the enemy of everyone else – and the only co-operation that does exist is in the form of favours, bribes and other “tit-for-tat” arrangements, with any relationships always susceptible to a sudden backstabbing by the more ruthlessly ambitious partner. With such a widespread lack of trust serving as the foundation for the state it becomes impossible for it to operate as a fast, efficient and unified whole. Indeed, private citizens can often be thankful for the fact that the little feuds and foibles between individual state departments and fiefdoms are a frequent distraction of the state from plundering the average Joe.

Second, as “Austrian” economists we know that statist intervention can never achieve anything that it is supposed to achieve – or at the very least it can only do so with significantly inflated cost. All of its publicly stated ambitions – conquering poverty, providing affordable healthcare, employment for all of those who want to work, safety and security in retirement, the vanquishing of crime and so on – will never be achieved simply because these things cannot be achieved through the means of wealth redistribution rather than through wealth creation. Indeed, because the state has no area where it can genuinely make a positive difference for the whole of society, its own natural incentive to sustain itself and to maximise its own power instils in it the desire to make problems worse rather than better – solely for the purpose of lending itself a perceived role. It is better for the state, for instance, to keep people poor so that they are dependent upon government handouts; it is better for the state to disarm its citizenry so that the latter present no threat to the state’s own armed guards, at the cost of increasing crime which the state can then step in to solve. Unfortunately this perverse incentive is fed by the fact that many people see the state’s failings as a reason for strengthening the state and giving it more power, rather than as a reason for getting rid of it. Most of the symptoms of these failings are far removed from the state itself and it requires the ability to follow a long chain of thought in order to identify the true culprit. When the government inflates the money supply, for instance, prices rise – yet it is businesses, i.e. all of those greedy, exploitative capitalists, who actually raise the prices directly and so it is them who get the blame. Similarly, when state mandated minimum wages result in unemployment the public view is that the fault lies with those same evil businessmen who are refusing to lower their profits and hire more workers. Most of this is due to the fact that the advent of democracy has severely weakened the distinction between the state and the people – the feeling of “us” and “them”. Rather, through our voting rights, all of us are the state and we are all doing what the state is doing. So, perversely, the state’s failings are perceived not its own but rather as our failings, as if it we ourselves who have failed in the particular endeavour. However, here also lies the state’s weakness. As recent secessionist movements and events within the European Union have indicated, the feeling of unity with and control of the state is severely weakened when the state becomes too big and bloated, swelling to a size where decisions are made by strange and unfamiliar figures in a city many thousands of miles away. Much of the motivation for the Brexit vote, for instance, was the desire to repatriate decision making authority from Brussels back to Britain. This suggests that the degree to which power can be removed from its proximity to the people is finite – a limit which has served as a severe frustration to the unifying, globalising and bureaucratising ambitions of political elites. Indeed, it is now unlikely that these ambitions will ever be fulfilled. Moreover, secession necessarily breaks up large states into smaller units which, as we explored in several previous essays, necessarily makes the state’s power vis-à-vis its citizens weaker rather than stronger.

This leads us onto our third point which is that the state, or rather the people who can be said to form it, are a minority of the citizenry. This is necessarily so because, as a parasitic entity, it is simply not possible for the state to be comprised of the majority. Contrary to popular belief no state has ever retained power as a result of force alone; rather, the state’s sustenance is dependent upon at least the tacit acceptance of the majority of the citizenry. Although the fear of force may constitute a reason for that tacit acceptance, generally the state has to ensure that its subjects are kept within the confines of a basic degree of contentment – that even if they may mumble and groan about the state’s inadequacy in this, that or the other, there is no pressing reason to upset the apple cart. The collapse of the Soviet communism, the Brexit vote and, we might suggest, the election of Donald Trump are instances of when such contentment with the status quo was exhausted in the minds of at least a significant proportion of the population. The end of the Soviet Union led to a markedly different political set up in Russia and Eastern Europe; we are yet to see the full consequences of the other two events. But when the people do decide to support a particular direction and to exert its independence with ferocity then the state has no choice but to yield.

This bumbling, bloated nature of the state is indicated by a joking phrase apparently made by the industrialist Charles F Kettering – “Thank God we don’t get as much government as we pay for”. Indeed, if all of the wealth and resources that the state commands were actually put to use effectively and efficiently then it would truly be a terrifying and formidable obstacle. Unfortunately, however, it is also summed up by what we might call, informally, the “cock up theory of history” – that, rather than great leaders and stewards shaping the world’s events in order to enhance humanity, anything significant that happens in the course of history is more attributable to a series of accidents and mishaps that just happen to have had widespread consequences. And it is here where the true danger of the state may perhaps lie.

One of the most infamous of these incidents occurred in 1983 at the height of the cold war when the Soviet nuclear early-warning system reported the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles from the United States. The Soviet officer monitoring the system at the time, Stanislav Petrov, believed the warnings to be the result of a system malfunction – a belief which was verified subsequently by inspection of the system. His refusal to act on the false warnings prevented a Soviet retaliatory attack which would have almost certainly elevated the cold war into a full scale nuclear holocaust. In other words, the complete annihilation of human existence was averted by the prudential actions of a single individual who refused to trust his government issued equipment. When the state today still handles so much and handles it so badly the possibility of a grave mistake going the other way is very serious indeed – and all the more so when belligerent tensions are again reaching new highs. Indeed, a not too dissimilar incident occurred in Hawaii this month when a missile attack alert was broadcast publicly, sending the citizenry into a panic for the best part of an hour – all because a state lackey “pressed the wrong button”. It is for this reason more than any other that the state should be regarded as dangerous. So much power in the hands of so few people is at risk of one them making a simple error, rather than at the risk of that same person acting with evil intentions. As awesome as the state may be we have more to fear from its stupidity than from its ingenuity.

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Small States – the Key to Liberty?

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Although libertarians share a passion for personal liberty, free enterprise and the primacy of the individual over the collective, they can differ markedly over the precise role and scope of the state. The main division is between so-called minarchists on the one hand, who believe that there is a limited, justifiable role for the state in defining and preserving property rights, providing security and dispensing justice, and between so-called anarchists on the other who believe that the state, however minimal the services it provides, is always an unjustified invasion of individual liberty and that all defence, security and adjudicative services should be provided by the free market just like any other end.

This division is far from being a futile theoretical exercise and is, indeed, important in determining and clarifying the nature of libertarianism. The present author, for example, self-identifies as a Rothbardian anarchist who sees no justification for the state whatsoever and that anything else is antithetical to individual freedom. However, what we shall argue here is that there is another distinction that is likely to be much more important when it comes to the actual achievement of individual liberty in our world today. This distinction is not between how big or how powerful a state is within a given territory, but, rather, the size of that territory in the first place. That actually, a world of liberty will be achieved much more effectively if we concentrate on breaking up existing states into smaller states rather than trying to limit the scope of government within an existing, large state. Moreover, as we shall see, the realisation that smaller states are more conducive to individual liberty goes at least some way to abolishing any practical difference between minarchism and anarchism.

The vast, monolithic state is, in fact, a relatively new phenomenon. Germany and Italy, for example, consisted of much smaller territories and independent cities until the late nineteenth century; the United States was intended to be a union of smaller, independent, sovereign states, and the transformation of the US into a single, large state occurred informally as a result of the civil war and the gradual consolidation of sovereign power in Washington DC. Other large states were born out of independence from conquest with many simply being artificial lines drawn on a map by politicians. The latest experiment is, of course, the European Union which has, since the post war era, attempted to draw an increasing number of powers away from the capital cities of the individual member states and concentrate them in Brussels. This tendency of increasing the size of states has gone hand in hand with the gradual replacement of laissez faire with socialisation, statism, social democracy and increasing belligerence on the part of the resulting behemoth states. All of the vast conflicts of the twentieth century – the two world wars and the cold war – occurred after major consolidations and empires were in place. Today, we are left with the belligerence of the United States and its Western allies as they seek to control the Middle East and to quell the growing ambitions of Russia and China which are, of course, two more states that cover a vast territory.

There are several reasons why larger states erode liberty while smaller states tend to be more conducive towards it. The first and most obvious is that a larger state has access to a vastly greater sum of resources – more natural resources such as oil, gas, farmland etc. and, of course, a larger population to subject to tax slavery. Thus the large state is able to command relatively more wealth than a smaller state. The greatest impact of this is with regards to foreign policy. It is not likely, for example, that a territory the size of Monaco or Liechenstein would have the wherewithal to produce the military hardware of the United States. Even if its tax base could, in some way, pay for all of the necessary resources it would, in the first place, be heavily reliant upon foreigners who would have to supply, manufacture and then store all of the aircraft, tanks and missiles and so on. This conveys to foreign governments the power to restrict the military growth of the small state and with it all of the derivatives that accompany an increasing appetite for warfare such as suspension of civil liberties, freedom of the press, and so on. Indeed, in small states which are reliant upon foreign powers for their military equipment, such as Singapore, it is usually to the benefit of the foreign state to see the smaller state armed. Second, a large state possesses a larger population and thus can benefit from a wider division of labour in its bureaucracy. Hence larger states have no end of specialist agencies, departments and units that are each devoted to a particular area of government which serves to more effectively augment and consolidate the potency of government power. The US federal government, for example, employs approximately £4.1m people across an alphabet soup of abbreviated names and acronyms for hundreds of government departments and agencies. Smaller states will not have this luxury. Liechtenstein, for example, has an entire population of just over 37,000, a bare fraction of the federal government of the US, so many of its government employees must presumably carry out several core functions rather than individual, specialist occupations. Third, consolidation of smaller states into larger states reduces the competition between states. If a small state becomes too burdensome and oppressive in its rate of taxation and regulation then people can simply jump ship. Thus there will be a drain of productivity from the onerous state to the benefit of less domineering states. Indeed, rather than any so-called, internal “separation of powers” between the different organs of an individual state, it is in fact the competition with other states that provides the real check and balance to state power. We can therefore see that the real motivation for the consolidation of smaller states into larger states, the increasing number of trade agreements and treaties between states and, furthermore, the recent hullaballoo about corporate tax avoidance is to restrict choice amongst the taxed population. If such restriction is achieved, people will stay put in their home state and government can subject them to ever increasing restrictions, safe in the knowledge that nowhere else can offer anything better. The logical end – a vast, monolithic world state – would have absolutely no check whatsoever on its expanding powers, short of people’s abilities to escape into outer space. Moreover, sealing the border of a small state is markedly more difficult than sealing the border of a larger state. Smaller states are more reliant upon foreign trade for resources and the migration of intellectuals, entrepreneurs, businessmen and cultural or sporting icons, and so they have to permit a relatively porous border. A larger state, however, has much of these things home grown already and thus is able to invoke more impenetrable border restrictions, safe in the knowledge that it is not providing an overwhelming degree of disruption to its economy. And, of course, in a smaller state people are physically closer to the border so that even relatively impoverished people who wished to escape to a neighbouring state could brave the journey by foot in a few days. It would be much harder, however, for the same type of individual to escape the US to Mexico from, say, Kansas. Fourth, a larger state possesses a greater number of domestic industries compared to a smaller state. This creates both the incentive and the wherewithal to impose a greater number of protective trade restrictions and tariffs. If a smaller state, however, specialises in, say, two or three industries but does not have a steel industry it is clear that any protective tariff imposed on imported steel would be protecting absolutely nothing and everybody within the state is simply having to pay higher prices for steel. Moreover, as we noted, smaller states are more reliant upon foreign trade in the first place and any the effects of any restriction in that regard are likely to be greatly magnified compared to the same in a larger state. Fifth, all else being equal, a larger state comprises a greater proportion of the worldwide economy than a smaller state. Correspondingly, there will be a wider acceptance of its government-issued, paper currency. Larger states therefore have a much greater ability to inflate their currencies to support government spending and, moreover, export this inflation abroad. It is no secret that the status of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency, where everyone has a willingness to buy and hold dollars, has permitted a perpetual inflation of the dollar for decades, the eventual disastrous effects of which are only just beginning to be felt. A smaller state, however, whose currency has a smaller circle of acceptance and is barely used in international trade, is more likely to simply inflate itself into oblivion and has to enact price controls and capital controls much sooner than the larger state. Thus the chickens come home to roost much quicker in a smaller state, much like we are seeing in present day Argentina. And finally, in smaller states where the population is more homogenous in culture and outlook, it is much more difficult to set up a welfare state and to invoke the attitude that state welfare is permissible. In the first place, the lack of contrasting demographics provides little excuse for racial or cultural differences and, moreover, differences in the level of education to be used as a justification for alleged inequalities that can be somehow ameliorated by state welfare. In a larger state, however, it is possible to drill into the minds of welfare recipients a sense of entitlement resulting from their alleged misfortune while at the same time encouraging a sense of guilt and obligation in the minds of those who happen to be better off. Second, in a large state the disparate groups and populations, some of whom are wholly net tax payers and others wholly net tax receivers, are distant and unfamiliar to each other. The social security cheque of a poor, blue collar, unemployed man in urban Detroit, for example, may well be written by a middle class lawyer residing in Westchester. In other words, if you are a tax payer your money simply vanishes into a pot and you never get to see first-hand the nature and quality of the people who benefit from it, nor do the latter – probably residing on the other side of the continent with different coloured skin, a different language and different social and cultural practices which are entirely alien from yours – ever get to see you. Thus, with such an impersonal and faceless affair, there is little incentive for anyone to care about sponging off anyone else, nor is there much cause for tax payers to become outraged at who is sponging off of them. In a smaller state, however, the person writing your welfare cheque may quite easily be your neighbour, from whom there is nothing much to distinguish you in terms of background and education that should cause you to be any more “disadvantaged” than he is. Therefore, in a smaller state, it becomes much easier to determine which individuals are productive and generating wealth on the one hand, and which individuals are unproductive and acting as a leech upon everyone else on the other. Both the willingness to accept and to fund state welfare is therefore kept firmly in check in a smaller state.

To reiterate, none of this means to say that the theoretical debate between minarchism and anarchism does not matter. However, we can also see how the conduciveness of smaller states towards liberty and larger states towards tyranny goes some way towards eliminating the schism between minarchists and anarchists. The government of a smaller state is closer to the population not only geographically but also in terms of its values and cultural outlook. The result of this is that the crucial issue of the consent of the governed is at least partially, if never perfectly, resolved by a small state. Any government action is likely to be tailored to the specific needs and values of the smaller, local population as opposed to the one-size-fits-all solutions imposed by larger states. A degree of empathy and understanding between the governors and the governed is far more likely in a smaller state as opposed to when the government draws to its so-called “representatives” from distant and unfamiliar lands in a capital city that is hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. There is at least, therefore, a greater chance that the government is working for you and with you, even if you may disagree with some of its policies and have to obey certain edicts which you would prefer to disobey. Moreover, in a smaller state with a smaller population a single vote out of, say, a few hundred thousand people carries more weight than a single, drop-in-the-ocean vote in a population of tens of millions. And if the world as a whole consisted of thousands of small states and free cities with relatively small populations what would be created is a “patchwork quilt” of independent territories, each with their own social, political, cultural, economic, and religious idiosyncrasies, to the extent that everyone would be able to find somewhere that is broadly conducive to his own needs and values. Some states or cities, for example, could be relatively liberal with, for example, legalised drug use, and/or permissibility of homosexuality, whereas others could be conservative and/or religious and permitting the expression of only traditional cultural values. Moreover, although the industry of each state would necessarily have to specialise in what was possible in terms of the geography, climate and access to raw materials, each independent state would seek to pursue excellence in academia, art, culture, and sport on a much more local scale than is possible today in larger states. Therefore, states, and cities in particular, would once again become seats of great learning and culture as opposed to the havens of poverty and crime that many of them are today.

At the heart of all of this is the right to secession – the freedom of territories, cities, districts and the individual property owner, to break away from one state, join another, or even to go it alone entirely (indeed, the possibility of individual property owners seceding is one that Mises entertains in Liberalism, dismissing it only out of impracticality). In the first place it is, of course, the recognition of the right to secede that will shatter the behemoth state into smaller states. The prospects of a move towards this are not at all bad. Secessionist movements are beginning to show signs of success in various parts of the world, notably in Scotland where, in spite of a failed independence referendum last year, voters awarded 56 out of a possible 59 UK parliamentary seats to the Scottish Nationalist Party in May of this year. The US state of Texas passed a bill in June of this year that will see the opening of its own bullion depository in order to provide some kind of independence from the inflationary zest of the Federal Reserve. Indeed, given that the imperialism of the West is founded upon the hegemony of the dollar, seceding from this empire of paper money may be both the most symbolic and practically effective rejection of the large state. Second, however, with the right of secession comes the strongest chance of reconciliation between the theoretical schools of anarchism and minarchism. For if there is a right to secession, states are little more than a collection of property owners coming together voluntarily to provide for a common purpose in a way that suits those particular property owners. If these property owners could leave and take their property with them if they so desired the issue of consent – the preoccupation of anarchists – is overcome. However, in order to prevent secessionist fervour, the state – the group of property owners as a whole – cannot become overly burdensome or invasive towards particular property owners lest they leave. It would also be likely that too much socialisation and the implication of a welfare state would lead to weakening competitiveness with neighbouring states in which fewer areas were socialised. Thus, the scope of the state within a particular territory – the preoccupation of minarchists – is likewise resolved. Moreover, the threat of secession and the competition with other states would cause the government of a particular state to behave more like a business, seeking to attract “customers” to join its territory, so that even if certain services were socialised they would have to be run in a competitive manner because endless tax funding would simply never be a possibility as it is in a large state. There comes a point, therefore, where the distinction between the state as a compulsory, aggressive institution on the one hand, and a purely voluntary and privately endorsed entity on the other begins to dissolve. In short, whichever way you look at it the only way to achieve either the absence of a state desired by anarchists or a small state desired by minarchists is to oppose, resolutely and emphatically, the large, overarching state.

It is clear that this understanding can have important ramifications for the libertarian movement as a whole. While the theoretical debate between minarchism and anarchism will (and, in the opinion of this author) should remain, when it comes to decisive action towards achieving a free world we can see that pressing for the eradication of large states and their dissolution into smaller states may be a unifying way forward. Moreover, although libertarians should, at heart, remain fully radical and uncompromising in their detestation of the state, we can see that the less revolutionary stance proposed here is likely to be more acceptable to a public which still views at least some kind of state as a necessity. Libertarians would be able demonstrate to the public that the large, monolithic state is inimical to their prosperity while at the same time avoiding all of the “who will build the roads” and “who will catch the bad guys?” questions, discussion of which tends to alienate people from the libertarian cause. However, unlike the advocacy of other “half-way” measures to reduce state power (such as so-called  tax reform and school vouchers), which simply rearrange the deck chairs on the sinking ship of the state, pressing for the breakup of large states is a positive move towards eliminating the state entirely. There is, therefore, nothing half-hearted about this approach. Once we begin to put the world on the path to breaking up large states, not only will the worst excesses of state oppression be vanquished, but the achievement of restricting the geographical size of states may, in and of itself, also achieve the final libertarian end – either minimal “night watchman states or, a complete, de facto eradication of the state as an aggressive institution.

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

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

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

Legal Persons and Self-Ownership

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

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

Original Appropriation of Goods

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

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

The first criterion – that there should be a tangible good – might seem trite, but it is worth emphasising that there needs to be matter that is the subject of a physical conflict. While contracts, as we shall see in part three, can deal with property that is not yet in existence but is proposed to come into the ownership of one of the contracting parties in the future, it is clear that claims of present ownership must be over existing goods. Not only will this requirement exclude unreal or imagined entities or objects, but so too will it not capture thoughts, feelings and ideas. Space precludes us from examining in detail whether libertarian legal systems will recognise so-called “intellectual property” but here we must assume that it will not and that all claim of ownership will be over real, tangible, existing goods. Secondly, it should be self-evident that only a legal person can take legal ownership of goods. Objects and animals, as well as not possessing the right to self-ownership, cannot also possess the right to own goods external to them. A banana, a mere unconscious object that cannot own itself a fortiori cannot be said to have rights of ownership over other such objects. Self-ownership is, therefore, a pre-requisite for owning something else. Thirdly, a legal person must have put the good to productive use. In libertarian theory, the first user-occupier of a good is the one who is able to claim the right to original appropriation of that good and, thus, ownership over it3. A libertarian legal system will therefore have to determine precisely which actions will satisfy the demonstration of putting a good to a productive use. Is, for example, touching an object enough to satisfy this criteria, endowing the individual who laid his finger upon the good the exclusive right to its enjoyment? Or is something more required? The key test is likely to be whether a given action produces another good from the original good, in other words it is diverted from delivering one stream of utility to delivering another. This could be something as simple as moving an object from one place to another, gathering logs to use as firewood, removing weeds from soil to plant seeds, and in most cases simple possession may suffice to prove one’s claim to title. The importance of this criterion lies in the fact that a person must be able to demonstrate that he was the first who recognised the good as a scarce and valuable entity and so deliberately laboured in order to ensure that the good provided its highest valued utility. Fourthly, the productive use of the good must extend over the entirety of the physical good claimed and thus serve to clearly ring-fence the good from matter that is not put to productive use. As we said in part one, the purpose of rights and ownership is to avoid or otherwise resolve conflicts arising from scarcity – this cannot be done unless the matter over which a person claims a right is encircled by a clear boundary, a red line over which people know they must not cross. For most self-contained objects, this will not present too much of a problem. One log of wood for instance, in bounded within the physical limits of the good itself – when I move it from the wood to my home in order to use as firewood it is clear that the extent of my productivity is limited to that log and not to an indeterminate quantity of the forest. It becomes more difficult when this is not the case. One example that is used frequently as an objection to the homesteading principle is if several people are swimming or sailing to an ownerless island does the first one to reach it claim the entire island? Or if a person stands on a cliff and urinates into the sea, is he entitled to ownership of the entire ocean? The answer is no, because the extent of the person’s physical presence has not served to ring-fence the entire island or the entire ocean within his sphere of productivity. The person’s valuable ends were achieved without any productive effort being extended beyond his immediate location. If a person wishes to claim ownership over the entire island or the ocean he must be able to demonstrate the extent of his productivity over that entire matter. His ownership will stop at the point where evidence of productive use also stops, and the matter within that sphere of productivity will be ring-fenced. There will be cases where a person may have exerted (at least in his mind) productive effort but there is insufficient evidence to prove that such an effort has ring-fenced property. The most typical type of example will be on boundaries of homesteaded land. If a person has homesteaded an allotment, that part of the garden where crops have been planted and are growing will clearly be part of the ring-fenced allotment. However, at the boundary of the allotment, will say, evidence of a dropped tool a few metres from the nearest crop, or a single footprint made when the gardener stood back to view his work, serve to extend the boundary of the homesteaded land to these locations? Clearly, if the gardener had erected fencing to close in his land then this would itself consist of productive use and this problem would not exist. A related problem is where productive use has apparently extended to only part of a good yet an individual alleges that the whole good is necessary to fulfil his ends. An example is if I draw water daily from a small lake by standing on its edge and then someone else begins to draw water from the other side, can I complain that this latter person is violating my private property? A libertarian court is likely to conclude that the answer is no as if the entirety of the lake was of value to me then I should have extended my productive efforts to ring fence the whole thing. Instead, my only productive acts extended to a small portion of the water available each day thus I did not demonstrate that the remainder of the water was of any value to me. Water rights are, of course, a complicated issue, especially with regards to flowing water but we can acknowledge that in clear cases where it was possible to fully homestead a good and that opportunity was not taken a person cannot later complain that his rights were usurped. Furthermore, the lack of clear boundaries of productive action would lead to obvious absurdities. Whenever a person puts anything to productive use this matter will be connected to the entire Earth – nay, the entire universe. Was the first person who trod on the virgin soil of the planet able to claim ownership over the entire thing? Fifthly and finally, the good must, of course, be ownerless and no one else must have previously satisfied the criteria we have just elaborated. If another person has done so then this latter person’s title trumps that of the claimant. An important consideration in this regard is that a libertarian legal system will have to determine which actions of a person who owns a good are sufficient to determine the abandonment of and, hence, the loss of ownership over that good. This is important for two reasons – first, to determine if a subsequent person may extend productive use over the good and thus claim ownership over it without contravening the rights of the previous owner; and secondly, to determine if the first owner is liable in the event that the good physically interferes in someone else’s property. If, for example, a person builds a house and, after a period of time, abandons it and it falls into disrepair it may subsequently collapse into a neighbouring dwelling. If the original owner of the collapsed property still owns it then the owner of the damaged, neighbouring property may be able to sue him; if not, and the collapsed house is ownerless and is wholly placed back into the sphere of nature then the collapse is of the same ilk as a tree falling or a lightning strike and so the owner of the neighbouring property will be without remedy against anyone else. As we shall see, the contract is one method of exercising the abandonment of a good by transferring it to another individual and the terms of contracts may selectively nullify the original owner’s liability for past actions vis-a-vis the property, transferring this liability to the new owner.

Conclusion

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


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Please note that this post received minor revisions on January 16th, 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is a Law?

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

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

Law and Enforceability

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

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

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

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

Legal Systems

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

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

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

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

Law and Objectivity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A:       “Competing law courts”

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

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

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

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

Legislation or Judge Made Law?

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statism and Non-Aggression

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In the ideological battle between statists and libertarians, the latter are happy to apply the scriptures of non-aggression and non-violence to any human being. We do not distinguish between certain categories or castes of human in explaining this application; rather, it is a universal ethic. It is often supposed that statists embrace the opposite or the precise contrary of this principle – that, in favouring the violent invasion of other people in order to impose their will, they lie on the other extreme of the spectrum of the permissibility of violence.

It would be a mistake to view the statist contention in this way. For the precise opposite of the non-aggression principle – that no human may initiate violence against another – is that any human may or should initiate violence against another. But statists do not hold this view; indeed they do not, in any way, come close to rejecting the edicts of non-aggression. They simply believe that it does not apply to a certain set of individuals who form part of the state. Indeed one popular argument in favour of government and against anything approaching anarchy (in its literal meaning of “no ruler”) is that only government can preserve “order” and prevent “chaos”, chaos which almost certainly would prevail if everyone were allowed to run rampant by stealing from and murdering each other. Universal aggression is, therefore, firmly rejected by statists.

In understanding this we come to the, perhaps, surprising realisation that statists have more in common with libertarians that we might at first suppose. States, which may use violence permissibly according to the statist, are, after all, always a minority and the ordinary citizenry, who must refrain from violence, make up the majority. Statists do, therefore, very much embrace the non-aggression principle more than they reject it – they believe it applies to most of the population! In presenting a challenge to them, therefore, simply repeating the mantra of non-aggression is to overlook this fact. We are therefore faced with the challenge – or perhaps, the opportunity – of having to apply a more subtle and nuanced argument against statists. Instead of blathering on about how violence is unethical and how holy the non-aggression principle is (although one most not deny the truth of either of those propositions), let us meet the statist on his own terms: “fine, let us accept that violence is permissible – the why restrict it to only these humans beings that make up the state? Why are they so special? Why is only a monopoly of violence held by certain individuals justified?”

The present author argued recently that our primary preoccupation is with the state and how persuading people of its evil nature – or at least, its lack of necessity – is often a different task from understanding and refining core libertarian doctrine. Taking on the state is therefore our first and highest priority and accomplishing this through the shortest and most persuasive route possible should be prioritised ahead of trying to fill everyone’s heads with the details of libertarian thought (although it would hardly be a bad thing if everyone wished to embrace those details). The line of argument suggested here is a case in point, focussing on the core issue of the monopoly of violence enjoyed by the state, rather than concentrating on violence per se that may lead one to awkward and otherwise unpersuasive debates concerning, for example, lifeboat situations. This may be a more penetrating and revealing line of attack for one’s audience. But even if we were to proceed down the route of non-aggression and end up debating hard cases such as whether a person can be forced to save a drowning toddler, we can still deploy the rejoinder: “OK fine, let us say that a person can be forced to save this drowning baby. Why may only the state do the forcing? Why does this situation call for these people and only these people to force this person to act?”

How then, might such a challenge to a statist unfold? The first counterargument is likely to be that which was mentioned earlier – the necessity for order. That without the state, society as we know it will simply collapse into a frenzy of individualistic war of all against all. There are numerous retorts to this line of thinking. First of all, far from being the resolver of conflict, government is, rather, its creator and sustainer. Conflicts only exist because people hold different opinions as to the ends to which scarce resources should be directed. Government forcing one set of ends to triumph over the others does not resolve these conflicts – in fact it is a manifest admission that resolution is not possible or is not worth trying. Resolution of a conflict would be to peacefully and voluntarily agree an outcome and hence all parties would be satisfied, even if grudgingly. The imposition of violence, however, simply forces an end upon an unwilling victim, totally overriding any concerns the latter has whatsoever, harbouring not harmony and understanding but bitterness and resentfulness. Indeed we might even say that government force is a direct incitement to revolution and overthrow. Statists rarely admit that what they mean by collectivism is their own version of it – that government is brilliant and harmonious so long as it is producing ends that they themselves desire. But they never consider the situation of the barrel of the gun pointing at them and ordering them to do something with which they disagree, or even detest. In any case we should point out that if the lack of a government will unbridle an inherent disposition on the part of humans towards chaos and violence then we are entitled to ask why giving some of these very same evil, animalistic ogres special powers of violence will improve the situation. Won’t they just respond to using these special powers with the very same base and savage motivations that propel them towards disorder in an anarchical society? Indeed isn’t it giving them a unique advantage in doing so? Why are they suddenly so wise, trustworthy and angelic simply because they operate under the aegis of the state? To this we could anticipate the rejoinder “Ah but we have democracy! The stewards will be accountable to the people so will never abuse their powers!” Even if we were to accept the notion that a majority vote once every few years is sufficient to control the demagoguery we are still left with the same problem – the majority is still made up of humans choosing humans to supervise humans. Rather than simply place their trust in these holy guardians to keep the peace, won’t they just try and use them as a legitimised route to the same plunder and pillage that they would have otherwise tried to accomplish through a war of all against all?

Let’s turn next to the question of economic order. Even if he was to concede that government isn’t needed to keep the peace, wouldn’t our budding statist still be armed with the fact that there would simply be market and allocational chaos without government, that there would be shortages, booms, busts, depressions, greed, avarice, and so on? After all, everyone knows that the free market and capitalism caused the Great Depression, right? I trust that the majority of the readers of this essay will understand why this view is completely incorrect but it is worth repeating the truth because it is so ironic: that government, far from being the cure of or even an innocuous attempt at trying to relieve these problems, is in fact the very cause of them. Allocational chaos always stems from government interference whereas the pricing profit and loss system would produce neither surplus nor shortage, and it is government induced credit expansion through a fraudulently propagated fractional reserve banking system, together with the ring fencing of politically connected financial institutions from losses, that causes the business cycle. Government is responsible for these catastrophes, and we certainly do not need their attempts to solve them with the very thing that sets them off in the first place.

What if the statist falls back on saying that we all need to “follow the same plan” and “move in the same direction?” Such an argument could be made from either an economic viewpoint, a moral one, or both – that we either need government to direct production (or at lay down the “rules” for freer production), to provide us with moral guidance and outlaw certain behaviour, or to do both of these things at the same time. This raises the question of precisely which and whose moral or economic programme should be followed, and why. Government is only “needed” because everyone’s plans differ and, as we said above, they do not want to devote the scarce resources available to the same ends. You therefore have to force them into directing them towards the government’s ends. Why does the statist think that a good, productive and morally nourished society is built upon the fear and intimidation of being bullied and harassed into directing production, or into following a certain moral code, according to the will of a handful of faceless bureaucrats? In short, what is so special about these people’s ends – why are they to trump all others? But even if this could be answered the entire alleged necessity of following one “plan” is based upon a misunderstanding of the need to avoid conflict. Certainly, if we execute our individual plans, we need to avoid skirmishes with each other when we do so, but it doesn’t follow from that that we must all be forced to take the same path like a set of mindless lemmings, and that there is not a way for different plans to peacefully coexist.

These are just some of the possible lines of argument that might proceed from an understanding of how statists really view violence and non-violence, and embracing this more nuanced view might permit more incisive and hard-hitting arguments that libertarians can deploy during debates with their ideological opponents.

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The Good Libertarian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anti-War and Anti-State

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The furore over the recent attempt of the UK government to commit military force in Syria in concert with the US government revealed a widespread popular opposition to war that appears to span the entire political spectrum. Indeed, libertarians must admit that the ideological left, with its anti-imperialist and anti-war profiteering motive, has often been a louder voice in castigating the warmongers and interventionists in conflicts past and present.

Nevertheless it must be emphasised that if one is to be truly anti-war then that commitment alone is, regrettably, not sufficient. For war is always propagated by states, between states and for the benefit of states. Libertarians often point out that “war is the health of the state”, permitting the government to suspend the status quo and enact all manner of heinous oppression and control that would be unthinkable in a time of peace, measures that, curiously, do not disappear as soon as the alleged enemy is vanquished. But as much as it is true that war feeds the state so too does the state feed war, not only siphoning off resources from the productive sector towards the creation of bombs and missiles, but, crucially, the very desire to create a bigger state makes war more likely. Many anti-war activists of the left have no problem with government metastasising to whatever size in economic and social matters, creating alleged “fairness” and “equality” and whatever other emotive but elusive goals happen to sound most appealing. The aims may be innocently honourable enough but it is ridiculous to think that the means of the state can ever be used peacefully, let alone to believe that a large state can be the promoter and preserver of peace. There are three key reasons for this.

First, the state always means conflict. The precise means at the states disposal, the only means that it can use – violence – results in the constant diversion of scarce resources away from the ends of their owners and towards the ends of others. The state is effectively engaged in a constant war on its own citizens, forever plundering and pillaging them to fund their lavish lifestyles and to line the pockets of their friends under the guise of wasteful socioeconomic programmes. Foreign war, fundamentally, is no different and every motivation for it ultimately reduces to a battle over resources. It is therefore somewhat bizarre that anti-war activists are content to allow a government to war against its own citizens but, for some reason, as soon it comes to doing the same against foreign nations then all hell breaks loose. However correct this latter reaction may be, not only is it hypocritical but it is also dangerously naïve to expect the state to restrict itself to peace and harmony abroad when it will never even do so at home. Nazi Germany, for example, was met with such ambivalent dithering in the interwar period precisely because its ideology – big government control and intervention – was of no particular distinction from that which prevailed everywhere else at the time. The only difference was that it was prepared to take this ideology to its logical end, additionally piling on racial dogmas and nationalistic overtones that resulted in crimes which, however horrific and unforgettable, obscures the basic similarity between Hitler and, say, Roosevelt.

Secondly, big states attract the attention of control freaks and the greedy. The more money that is stashed in the government and can be leeched away by bloodsuckers and parasites then the more alluring it becomes to try and take a slice of that pie – and once that slice is taken, how wonderful it would be to take another slice, and then another after that! Finally when government intervention naturally starts to stifle productivity and there are no more pies left to be eaten, the siren song of war becomes ever sweeter to governments and their sponsors, not only as a distraction from their own economic mismanagement but as a way forward to secure a flow of resources from abroard and to tighten their grip on the domestic citizenry through lasting wartime or “emergency” measures. Neither must we forget that there is, among the political class, an alluring quality to being a wartime leader or “warrior”. Seeing off an alleged terrible enemy and apparently saving one’s people from invasion (although it doesn’t even need to get this far) is judged as being more heroic and worthy of the highest honours and decorations whereas creating “mere” peace and prosperity is apparently rather dull and uninspiring. Indeed, the most highly rated leaders all made their mark during wartime or were at least warmongering – Lincoln during the War between the States, Roosevelt and Churchill during World War II, and Reagan and Thatcher during the Cold War, for instance. Only when a conflict is so obviously pointless, futile and/or unjustified – such as those in Vietnam and Iraq – does this strategy backfire, as it did upon Johnson, Nixon and the younger Bush.

Finally, the degree of government intervention necessary to create alleged social or economic ends have only been met during a legacy of wartime control. The New Deal, for example, was modelled upon the wartime regime of Woodrow Wilson; World War II on the New Deal; and the post-war “Great Society”, the fight against poverty and the Civil Rights era all came after these wartime regimes were firmly in place. The citizenry have to be “united” (or worn down) by something such as war before they can ever begin to accept the degree of interference necessary to promote big government measures during peacetime. Ironically, therefore, a lot of the cravings of the anti-war left are reliant upon war if they ever have the hope of seeing the light of day.

In sum, therefore, to be anti-war but pro-state is the epitome of all dangerously ill-informed and contradictory positions, giving birth to the very thing it seeks to destroy. Rather, to be anti-war one must also be thoroughly and unreservedly anti-state, recognising this evil entity for precisely what it is – perpetual and endless conflict and violence. Only when we are well and truly rid of this scourge will there ever be a chance for peace.

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