Against the Welfare State – and Bank Bailouts

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The welfare state is undoubtedly one of the elements of government opposed by libertarians, not only due to its inherent injustice and economic destructiveness, but also because of its ability to provide fuel and sustenance to the growth of the metastasising state

If we are launch a critique of the welfare state we must first attempt to define it and to distinguish it from other categories of government activity. Such a task is not an immediately clear cut one as, fundamentally, all government expenditure sustains the welfare of its beneficiaries. If the government launches an invasion of a foreign country, spending on military grade weaponry, aircraft and whatever else will very much contribute to the “welfare” of armaments manufacturers yet we wouldn’t ordinarily classify this as part of the welfare state. Similarly, if the government decides to build a new road or railway line we wouldn’t usually describe this as providing “welfare” to the construction workers who undertake the leg work (although certain “job creation” schemes that simply pay people to carry out pointless work could be classified as welfare).

Whether or not a particular government outlay is classified as part of the welfare state is therefore defined more by its purpose rather than by its effect. The purpose of a foreign war is usually to gain control of valuable resources (even if it is veneered with an alternative justification such as spreading freedom and democracy). The purpose of building a road or railway is to “improve” the country’s transportation and communication networks. None of these projects is designed to provide some kind of comfortable lifestyle to those who undertake them (and, ignoring the possibility of benefiting favoured lobbyists and donors, to the extent that a government has a particular purpose in mind and wishes to achieve it efficiently it will have a desire to remunerate its suppliers as little as possible rather than as highly).

Welfare spending, on the other hand, is markedly different. Its purpose is always couched in the language of providing some kind of “help”, “care”, or “assistance” to the citizenry, as if the government is a giant nanny who appears with an equally giant milk bottle whenever one’s own teat runs dry. Given this, then, we can attempt to define the welfare state as that portion of government activity which is devoted to the sustenance of either the existing lifestyle of a particular citizen or to a lifestyle that is thought to be the minimum that is equitable in terms of wealth and income. The welfare state therefore provides a cushion or relief from events that may intercede in that lifestyle so, for example, if you get sick, the government will provide you with either free or subsidised healthcare; if you lose your job you will be entitled to unemployment benefit; and if you have baby the government will give you some money so that you are able to take care of it and give it an “adequate” upbringing. Granted, this definition if the welfare state is not precise and it will overlap with many other types of expenditure – few government outlays have a single purpose, even if some of these purposes are not made public – but we can be satisfied that it is reasonably accurate.

In spite of the fact that the welfare state is a moral issue and that its proponents believe that its existence is justified by the fact that the able should take care of the less able (“from each according to his means to each according to his needs”) it is arguable that the strength of its cause derives more from a misunderstanding of economics and that an amelioration of these misunderstandings is likely to weaken the foundations of the welfare state most effectively. Rather, therefore, than elaborating on the fact that the welfare state is, in a genuine free market, a morally unjustifiable confiscation and redistribution of property from its owners to non-owners respectively, let us concentrate mainly on a proper realisation of the economic effects of the welfare state in order to find the source of its undoing.

The type of welfare spending that we will focus on specifically is the bailout of the banks. This selection may appear surprising as surely most supporters of the welfare state are flat out opposed to bailing out the banks? And yet if we look closely, the qualities of bankers’ bailouts fits our definition of welfare spending all but perfectly. The financial services industry was accustomed to its business of expanding credit during the boom years and ploughing them into ultimately unsustainable malinvestments; its practitioners were richly rewarded for doing so and could afford big houses, expensive cars, private schools for their children, exotic foreign holidays, and so on. Metaphorically, they became accustomed to a lifestyle of gambling and partying fuelled by the punch bowl of monetary expansion. Following the inevitable crash that revealed the extent of the malinvestments and the huge losses that would ensue, the bailout of the banks was designed precisely to prevent the liquidation of this crumbling economic structure so that the banks could keep on making loans, keep on making profits from those loans, and so their top employees would not lose the lifestyle to which they had become accustomed. It was meant to refill the punch bowl and to keep the music playing so that the party would never end. The difference, therefore, between bankers’ bailouts and what we typically regard as the welfare state is simply a matter of degree, not of kind. They each provide a taxpayer funded cushion for their respective beneficiaries that insulates their lifestyles from the effects of either their own choices or from events that are beyond their control. Indeed, the collapse of the financial services industry as we know it would also have seriously curtailed the ability of governments to retain their accustomed lifestyle of borrowing and spending. To that extent, therefore, the bank bailouts were an exercise in self-preservation. The only perceived difference between bank bailouts and the welfare state is that the beneficiaries of the former were “rich” and not “poor”, which, it must be understood, is itself a misrepresentation. Many of those affected by a collapse of the financial services sector would not necessarily have been multi-millionaires as any insolvencies and downsizing is likely to have hit those lower down the pecking order first such as local branch managers and tellers before it hit those in the penthouse offices.

We have outlined this description of bank bailouts because every single argument that welfare statists use to oppose them are, in fact, the very same arguments that apply to their conception of the welfare state. We will therefore take each of these arguments in turn and show just how both bank bailouts and the welfare state, which are both a form of welfare spending, are economically destructive.

The first argument against the bank bailouts used by its opponents is that it creates moral hazard. In other words, if the banks can privatise their gains yet socialise their losses it provides an incentive to carry on and, indeed, augment the very destructive activity that was the source of the problem in the first place. All of this is true and we can have no quarrel with it. Yet it applies equally to the welfare state as well. Proponents of the welfare state imagine that if the government throws money at all of the events that manifest themselves as pitfalls in one’s own lifestyle then these pitfalls will simply go away. However if the government simply pays for a problem when it occurs then it creates as much of a moral hazard as the bank bailouts because all you have done is simply lowered the cost to individuals of bearing these pitfalls – and lowered cost leads to a swelled demand. If you pay people when they get sick, there will be more sickness; if you pay people when they are unemployed there will be more unemployment; if you pay people when they have children people will produce more children that need a roof and need feeding. The welfare state is not the solution to the problems it seeks to resolve; it is, rather, a fertiliser for their growth and proliferation, just as bank bailouts are a fertiliser for the growth of credit expansion, malinvestment and repeated boom and bust cycles.

The second argument against bank bailouts, related to the one we just outlined, is that it shoves the cost of the bad decisions of the bankers onto the shoulders of everybody else. Yet isn’t this precisely what the welfare state does? Welfare statists imagine that nearly every unfortunate circumstance in which people find themselves is not the product of their own making and that they are therefore blameless and should be (patronisingly) pitied – in short, that people do not bear any responsibility for their own circumstances. However, this is not the case with many of the issues that the welfare state attempts to address. As was argued in a previous essay on universal healthcare, the majority of medical ailments from which people suffer are not the unfortunate result of a random, illness lottery but are, rather, directly related to their environment and lifestyle – particularly diet, exercise and consumption of alcohol, tobacco and narcotics. If, therefore, people choose to pursue a lifestyle of eating gluttonously, exercising little and smoking and drinking heavily with this resulting in sickness, then if the government picks up the tab this simply forces the cost of these bad decisions onto everyone else. People, in most cases, choose to have children, or at least to engage in the intercourse that results in children – it isn’t a random, spontaneous event that appears out of nowhere to inflict itself upon people’s lifestyles. To the extent, therefore, that people cannot afford to raise these children properly and the government intervenes then the cost of other people’s bad decisions is again shovelled onto the shoulders of everybody else. But even those aspects of the welfare state that are not necessarily the fault of the individuals concerned – such as unemployment – is usually the result of government anyway. Low employability is caused not only by inadequate state education, but also government interference in the labour market such as minimum wages and excessive regulations that cause the cost of employment to exceed that of the productivity of the lowest skilled workers. Why, therefore, do welfare statists propose a government solution to what is a government created problem? Why not just get rid of the government created problem?

The third argument against bank bailouts is that they perpetuate what we might call a crony “corp-tocracy” where taxpayers’ money is siphoned off into the hands of the government’s favoured millionaire chums. Yet this is precisely the result of the welfare state also. Although the nominal beneficiaries of the welfare state are individual people, someone has to be paid in order to carry out the work of the welfare state. Not only does a welfare state require the creation and sustenance of a vast, leeching bureaucracy to administer it all but particular parts of the welfare state have to be contracted out to individual specialists. For example, public housing schemes need to find construction companies, hospitals need to find doctors and they need to purchase medicines from drug companies. The interests of these suppliers to the welfare state is to ensure that their compensation for carrying out their tasks is as high as possible; indeed, one of the reasons why the welfare state is such a burgeoning expense is because the disconnect between the consumer that pays and the supplier that is paid results in spiralling costs for the services of the latter, with the result that the majority of welfare spending goes not to the individual people but straight into the bank accounts of large corporations and contractors. Moreover, the welfare state is not usually a fixed pool of services that are provided by the government, but includes also private organisations and charities that lobby the government for money in order to solve the particular societal “problems” and grievances that they happen to have identified. Much of this money is simply wasted, as suggested by the recent collapse of Kids Company, a UK children’s charity, around a week after it received a £3 million grant from the government. Indeed, in the UK – when the chief executives of high profile charities are paid six figure salaries and they have been chastised for “aggressive” funding raising strategies that were recently attributed, at least in part, to the death of a pensioner – the substantive difference between a charity on the one hand and a corporation on the other is becoming increasingly questioned.

The fourth argument against bank bailouts is that they distort the economy, shovelling excess funding into the financial services sector and expanding their profits at the expense of other industries. Again, nothing about this is untrue and, indeed, as “Austrian” economists we would make an even more detailed case about how the resulting credit expansion distorts the consumption/investment ratio in order to result in unsustainable malinvestments across the entire economy. Yet the welfare state distorts the economy also, only in a more incremental and pacing manner. In the first place, the increased incentive caused by the welfare state to exacerbate the very problems it is supposed to solve, such as sickness and unemployment, reduces the capacity of the labour market and thus shrinks the extent of the division of labour that would otherwise have been possible. Second, the burgeoning cost of the welfare state caused by an artificially inflated demand for welfare requires more and more resources to be confiscated by the government in order to fund it. Thus, the areas of the economy that are devoted to providing welfare are swollen at the expense of other areas of the economy which must correspondingly shrink. Third, this is compounded by the fact that a large, government pot of gold encourages rent seeking behaviour, which in the case of welfare means (as we stated above) large numbers of special interest groups lobby the government each with a claim that they have identified some societal affliction that is ripe for resolution by government spending. Governments are eager to attract this kind of attention for more government spending means not only more power and prestige but also provides another outlet with which to bribe citizens with their own money when making election “promises”. The result of this, again, is that the total portion of the economy that is devoted to welfare spending is artificially inflated compared to what consumers would otherwise prefer.

The final argument against bank bailouts that we will consider is that they create a feeling of bitterness and resentment in the general population, a fissure of hate, contempt and distrust between the bankers and the people whom they supposedly serve. Again, all of this is true. However, it applies just as readily to the welfare state. Its proponents usually justify the imposition of the welfare state by stating that it is morally good for us to care and look after one another as if we are all one big family. This may be true enough, but the welfare state does not create that situation. In order to become a morally better person I have to choose to care and to look after my fellow man – I have to decide to do it voluntarily. I am looked upon with admiration because in spite of all of the personal luxuries I could have spent my money on, I willingly deprived myself of them and was happy to give the money to a person in need. The welfare state, however, does not give me any choice in this regard – it just forces me to do it regardless of what I want. The action, therefore, is not as the result of any personal sympathy or empathy for the plight of the less fortunate, nor of any aspiration to moral heights. Instead, the void left by an absence of sympathy and empathy is likely to be filled by bitterness and resentment as my hard earned money has just been confiscated from me to go to people who I believe may not deserve it, particularly if it goes to some cause that I may disagree qualifies for welfare spending (such as breast enhancement surgery on the NHS or unemployment benefits to those who are just workshy). The welfare state therefore creates the opposite of any charitable feeling whatsoever and destroys any notion of brotherhood or family. When this is coupled with the welfare state’s encouragement of the afflictions it seeks to solve then the result is a society with a lower, rather than higher, moral standing. This is exacerbated by the interdependent relationship between bank bailouts on the one hand and the welfare state on the other. Bank bailouts mean that the banks take the money of the taxpaying public and plough it into assets so that the income of anyone who owns these assets – i.e. the bankers themselves – is swollen while the incomes of those who do not stagnates. The resulting price inflation lifts the affordability of assets such as houses and basic necessities, such as food, out of the grasp of those on low incomes. The consequence is another artificially swollen demand for welfare to give ordinary people somewhere to live and something to eat. Thus, the poorest in society demand increased taxes on the rich – i.e. the very bankers who were bailed out – in order to fund increased welfare spending. The result, therefore, is a toing and froing of mutual theft, a circle of robbery where bankers demand taxpayers’ money to continue their casino operations, after which everyone else demands some of it back to ameliorate the resulting effects. Far from being a moral and harmonious society all we end up with is hating each other and trying to grab whatever we can out of each other’s pockets.

What we can see from this brief comparison of the welfare state to bank bailouts, therefore, is that there is very little qualitative difference between the two and that the arguments that are used to oppose bank bailouts apply just as easily to the welfare state. The amelioration of welfare demand is achieved not through the redistribution of a fixed pool wealth but through the raising of real incomes by increasing the productive output per person. In order to achieve this we need to eliminate both the bank bailouts and the welfare state so that we can return to a genuine economy where everyone serves each other rather than engages in mutual plunder. The rich would have to earn their wealth by directing and increasing the productive capacity of the economy to best meet the needs of the consumer; the poor earn their money by providing the labour to bring about this direction, with their wages being able to buy more and more goods as a result of the increased output. Not only would this create a more prosperous society where poverty has truly been consigned to the history books, but the vanquishing of hatred, resentment and antagonism would create a morally superior one too.

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Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Four – Wrongs

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The fourth part of our survey of libertarian law and legal systems will explore causative events of legal liability arising from wrongs – that is a breach of some obligation owed by one legal person to another without the necessity of a pre-existing relationship such as a contract.

There are two issues that demarcate the approach of a libertarian legal system towards wrongs as opposed to that of a contemporary legal system. First is the definition of a wrong and second is the standard of liability – that is, at which point the defendant becomes legally liable for a wrong.

Libertarian Definition of a “Wrong”

In contemporary legal systems, a wrong is some sort of act on the part of an individual that is viewed as being subject to legal sanction. Unfortunately, we have to start off with such a vague tautology as, looking at the variety of acts that are subject to legal regulation, this is about as precise as we can get. In many cases, of course, the wrong will be some form of harm caused by one individual to another which serves as the causative event to generate a legal response. “Harm” is very broadly defined and can include violent and physical inflictions such as murder and serious bodily injury, or damage and destruction to property, all the way to more ethereal harms that may include nothing more than speaking one’s mind such as “defamation” and causing “offence”. However, events currently classified as legal wrongs needn’t have a victim at all and the act may either be wholly unilateral or take place between consenting individuals. As an example of the former we can cite nearly all offences related to drug possession and dealing, and of the latter the criminalisation of certain sexual practices owing either to their nature or to the age of one of the participants. Basically, it is no exaggeration to admit that a wrong, legally defined, in our contemporary, statist legal systems means nothing more than some act that the ruling government or legislature doesn’t like and wishes to outlaw, to the extent that even quite innocuous behaviour may find itself being subjected not only to legal regulation but to criminal sanction.

As we outlined in part one, no legal liability is generated in a libertarian legal order unless the wrong, or the “harm”, consists of a physical invasion of the person or property of another – in other words, only those actions that violate the non-aggression principle are subject to legal regulation. Actions falling short of this violation are left untouched by the law and however unpleasant, unkind or distressing these may be one cannot use the force of law (i.e. legitimate physical force) to repel them1. A fortiori, there can be no legal wrong where the act involved has no victim, no other individual whose person or property has been invaded. Anything you do with your own person and property is no business of the law’s, however immoral or repugnant it might otherwise be.

There are certain wrongs that would appear to cause great harm (or have the potential to do so) but do not appear to be invading anyone else’s property. We can cite littering, driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and shouting “fire” in a crowded space as examples. The victimless aspect of these acts, however, is caused by the fact that they take place on public property that is owned by no identifiable individual. In a libertarian world however, where all property is privately owned, the property owner would demand standards of conduct (i.e. through contract if you are, for example, paying to drive on a road) and breaches of these standards would then be invasions of the property that could be subject to legal sanction. Indeed, as we saw in part three, contract is a method of preventing and apportioning responsibility for aggression where there is a pre-existing relationship between the parties.

Once again we will not attempt to justify here the basis of self-ownership and private property upon which legal regulation in a libertarian world rests; rather we will merely assume it to be true and examine its consequences for a legal order.

Standard of Liability

The determination of the standard of liability – the extent to which a defendant would be held legally liable for his actions – is a difficult question. The simplest approach is to view all physical incursions into the person and property of another individual as existing on a scale – the least violent or aggressive actions on one end with the most – such as murder and rape – on the other. Defendants would simply be liable according to the level of harm that they caused. If you cause a bruise, you are liable for a bruise. If you kill someone you are liable for a death. However, such a simple classification overlooks the fact that the same outcome to the victim – death, for example – can result from a variety of incidents for which the defendant may be responsible. It may be anything from a deliberately and coldly calculated murder perpetrated by an evil and inhuman serial killer all the way down to an unfortunate accident that the defendant, while responsible, regrets bitterly and would never have dreamed of doing. Such accidents can result from not only the most innocuous of behaviour but also from an innocent moment of absent-mindedness, a weakness which is extant in all humans. It is not likely that libertarian legal systems will categorise these two defendants in the same way. The first person is clearly a murderer whereas to apply this label to the second person would appear absurd. To subject these two individuals to the same standard of liability would not only be unjust but would also cause the legal system to fail to distinguish between those individuals who are (or otherwise have been) a deliberately engineered threat to other individuals from those who are not.

One solution to this problem is to recognise the difference at the remedy stage, so that once liability is established then the remedy can vary appropriate to the individual act of aggression2. Clearly this would be logical when considering the degree of aggression caused – a person who caused a scratch wouldn’t be liable for the same degree of compensation (or whatever remedy) as a person who caused a death. Yet when the outcome to the victim is the same – death, for instance – but the methods or motives of the defendant have been different, such an approach causes the confused situation where you have different responses to the same causative event. We do not, in our contemporary legal systems, label those who cause accidents “murderers” and then simply apply a lesser standard of remedy. Rather the murderers and the manslaughterers incur liability on different grounds from those as those who caused accidents; different remedies then flow from the differing grounds of liability. In part one, we stated that the purpose of legal rules and norms is to broadcast, publically, the rights and obligations of each and every person so that conflicts can be avoided, or otherwise resolved. As “consumers” of the legal system, people will seek the services of jurisdictions where these demarcations are at their most clear so that they can carry on with their lives free from the aggression of others and free from aggressing against anyone else. In a similar vein people are likely to require the legal system to accurately and specifically categorise those who do or at one time did pose a deliberately engineered threat to the person and property of others and those who do not. A prospective employer, for instance, might wish to think twice before hiring you if you deliberately killed someone, whereas if you were the unfortunate cause of a road traffic accident in which a person died then he may have some interest in knowing this but it may not make much difference to your chances of employment. Labelling all of those who cause death “murderers” (or, if we were to go the other way, just “tortfeasors”) would banish the benefits to be gained from this categorisation. One objection to this might be that such a classification is very broad and there will be more detailed considerations to be accounted for within each category – within the category of murderers, for example, will be cold blooded and unrepentant serial killers as well as those who acted in moments of passion and bitterly regret what they did. Shouldn’t these possibilities be recognised too? The answer to this is that the law is qualified only to investigate what you have done and not what you might do; it is the purpose of the law to state that you deliberately murdered someone or that you caused an accident. The law cannot say that you might go on to commit murder or cause an accident in the future. There will be extra-legal standards that might determine if a convicted murderer is still a threat to the public. A prospective employer might, for example, require a psychological test or some sort of guarantee from a sponsor or insurer before they hire the convicted individual. However, based upon the approach of our contemporary legal systems and the likely requirements of those seeking justice, there is an arguable case that a libertarian legal system would still categorise the past acts of aggressors into crimes and torts, with the individuals classified as criminals and tortfeasors respectively, if anything because this is what people, the “consumers” of justice, are used to. We must, however, remind ourselves that these are only suggestions as to how a libertarian legal system might operate. Everything we are stating here is only a speculation or projection of how jurisdictions might respond to the considerations they face in a libertarian way. There is absolutely no reason to suggest that some other way would not be more appropriate or would not be more likely to emerge in a libertarian society. Anyhow, the upshot of all of this is that there is likely to be something more, some second aspect in addition to the simple results of the act of the defendant in order to determine the standard of that defendant’s liability.

This second element appears to be the mindset of the individual defendant – what was in his mind at the time that the act of aggression occurred. Did he intend to cause the act of aggression? Did he intend the act of aggression and ended up committing a larger act of aggression (murder in the course of a felony; or simply causing more damage than intended such as death during an assault); or was it simply an accident caused by negligence or absent-mindedness? The broad classification of wrongs by our contemporary legal systems into criminal liability (crimes) and civil liability (torts) more or less reflects this. Crimes normally require a standard of criminal intent (“mens rea”), a higher standard of proof (beyond a reasonable doubt) and what is viewed as a harsher remedy – usually imprisonment, but also, in some jurisdictions, capital or corporal punishment for those at the more serious end of the scale, and fines for those at the less serious. Civil wrongs, or torts, require no such intent, have a lower standard of proof (balance of probabilities) and the remedy is normally restricted to payment of compensation. By the far the most dominant area of civil liability in English law today is the tort of negligence, negligence being a mindset far below deliberate intent to cause aggression.

While this goes some way to resolving our problem the risk now incurred is that of deferring too much to the conduct of the defendant and not to the actual harm that was caused to the victim – that legal systems will only consider how the defendant behaved and hold him responsible accordingly. Certain, limited circumstances such as duress or automation (to the extent that the defendant could not choose his action) may serve to partially or completely absolve the defendant from any liability. That aside, however, while the specific content of the freely chosen behaviour of soundly sane adults should certainly determine the extent of liability, it should not absolve such a person from any liability whatsoever. While it might seem “unfair” to hold someone liable for an unintended, remote or unlikely consequence of his action, it is equally “unfair” to leave the victim, who had no involvement at all – either intentional or accidental – in bringing about the state of affairs, to bear his injury or loss uncompensated.

All of this we will now explore in more detail by proposing a likely approach of a libertarian legal system to the question of liability, an approach that we suggest will consist of three stages:

  • Can liability be established? In other words, did the defendant initiate an action that was the cause of the physical invasion of the person or property of another?
  • If so, what is the extent of the liability? In other words, what was the result of the invasion to the victim?
  • What is the nature of liability? I.e., did the defendant actively intend the aggressive behaviour or was it a mere accident?

Establishing Liability

It is submitted that the establishment of liability in a libertarian legal system is likely to rest squarely on the simple occurrence of aggression – whether an individual initiated an action that caused the physical interference with the person or property of another individual. Once the fact of aggression is established the question of law of whether the defendant is liable will always be in the affirmative. In other words, liability is strict and is restricted solely to the question of whose actions initiated an invasion, physically, of the person or property of another.

The courts will have to determine precisely which actions are and are not aggressive. As we mentioned in part one there are plenty of innocuous physical actions – light beams, radio waves, sound waves, even fumes and odours – which, under a certain level of intensity would not ordinarily be categorised as invasive or aggressive. It must be remembered that physical invasions only give rise to social rules so long as they create a conflict and conflicts exist only in the minds of the participating individuals. They are not determined by a scientific analysis of colliding matter3. People could invade and physically interfere with each other as much as they liked if they had no problem with it. It is only because such an interference prevents one of the parties from pursuing the fulfilment of his ends that rights exist come into being and their enforcement is sought. The test in more difficult or threshold cases, therefore, is likely to be whether the invasive action prevented the plaintiff from pursuing his ends with the property that was subject to the invasion. The court may need to interpret the actions of the victim in regard to the invasion to determine this. Did he, for example, have to interrupt his operations? Did he appeal to the defendant for a cessation of the aggressive act? The courts are likely develop rules in order to accomplish this. They may, say, for example, that after a certain period of time a person carrying out a physically invasive act without any complaint gains an easement title and is permitted to continue the act. Nevertheless the courts would have to look at all the facts in each case in order to determine whether the plaintiff’s action is genuine and it is not likely that any one particular factor will override all others in every single case.

Assuming that there is an actionable physical act of invasion the initiation of the act must be implemented by an intervening act of will of another legal person. Acts initiated solely by the laws of physics are not aggressive actions but merely the acts of nature. While in most cases the intervention of will is likely to be contemporaneous with the act of aggression – A punches B; C stabs D, and so on – there is no requirement for it to be so. I may accidentally leave the hand brake off on my car and half an hour later the car rolls into someone; I may build a house that many years later collapses and falls onto another person. The extent of the liability of the owner of invading property in these types of case is easily misunderstood. It is true that, in such cases, the owner of the invading good may be prima facie liable for its physical invasion of another person or the latter’s property. However, this fact owes itself to procedural or investigative purposes and nothing about ownership of an invading object per se attracts legal liability. Given that all ownership derives from acts of deliberate, physical homesteading which transform an object from one good into another (in other words, any dangerous condition of owned goods is most likely the result of the intervention of will of the owner), and that any current owner as a voluntary successor in title has nearly always assumed full responsibility for this condition, it makes sense to look to the owner of the invading object first in order to find the culprit. Moreover, this owner is the most likely person to have used it last and to have caused the invasion. If your knife is found at the scene of a murder then it is obvious that the police will look to you first – you, as the the knife’s owner, are the “prime suspect”, if you like. However, where there is clearly a further intervention of will by another individual then it is this latter individual who becomes liable and whoever owns the invading object is irrelevant. For example, A uses B’s knife to stab C. Neither A nor anything that belongs to him may ever actually touch C but it was the intervention of his will, beginning with his own body, that initiated the act of aggression, not that of B. B’s knife was merely the intermediate tool that was used to fulfil the act and simply because B owned the knife does not mean that he should be liable for the stabbing, barring some special circumstance4. In cases where someone stabs you with your own knife then the aggression has already began when the person assumes physical control of your knife. In short, your are liable for what you do, not for which you own, and you are only liable for what you own to the extent that you have done something with it.

This brings us to the matter of causation and the question of whether or not the willful initiation of an act by the defendant caused a physical invasion of the person or property of another. The concept of causation in the law is a thoroughly confused and problematic area in contemporary legal systems. Courts leap into examining causation from the point of view of the harm that resulted to the victim and whether some act, omission, or whatever of the defendant was the cause of the actual harm that resulted; the question of what it is about the defendant and what he actually did is ignored. Possessing no rationale as to what should generate legal liability, their factual analyses of cause in the first instance holds everything to be an operative cause of what followed. If we are talking about injuries from a car accident, then there are a variety of causes – the fact that the victim was driving on the road at the time; the building of the road in the first place; the weather; the light at the time of day. Factually speaking the creation of the Earth is a cause of all accidents. They therefore have to apply various other mechanisms, such as “proximate cause” or “remoteness of damage” in order to narrow to the “relevant” cause and the extent of the damage for which the defendant will be liable. Needless to say vague and malleable concepts such as what is “reasonable” to hold the defendant liable for wade into the fray, particularly when we consider situations where the loss or injury caused to the victim is grossly disproportionate to the initiating action. In other words, like a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a hurricane, the damage resulting is more widespread or remote than would normally be the case, sometimes by setting off a chain of events – poking someone and inducing a fatal heart attack; causing a spark that initiates a widespread fire; knocking over an object that falls into a wall, that collapses onto a crowd; and so on. Is it not unfair to hold someone liable for the full extent of the damage when that damage has been completely out of proportion to anything imaginable when you consider the original act? Legal concepts such as “remoteness of damage” serve, in some cases, to limit your liability for remote but quite serious damage that initiates with your action so that the victim is left uncompensated. This approach of contemporary legal systems towards causation, through a mixture of factual and policy applications, therefore results in everything and then, suddenly, nothing being blamed for the damage to the victim.

Our suggestion here is that the correct approach to the question of a causal connection between the willful act of the defendant and the physical invasion of the victim should be considered first, leaving the question of the effects of the physical invasion (the resulting harm) to be considered in the second stage. Overall, this makes it much clearer to connect the will of the defendant to the resulting harm.

Strictly speaking, when considering causation, we must recognise that there is no such thing as a watertight “factual” analysis of what caused what. Factual determinations of causation result only from controlled experiments where we have the ability to repeat the situation and hold all variables that are not under consideration constant. Hence, by altering the input of the variable being tested, we can reasonably conclude that any change in output is caused by the alteration of that input. Such a method is not possible when examining the facts of legal cases. The aggressive act has happened and the victim is left with the harm. We do not have the luxury of undoing it, recreating the situation and seeing what results if we vary a single factor of input. All enquiries of causation, therefore, require hypothetical projections of what would have resulted had the circumstances varied. We have already seen, however, that courts have to make objective legal determinations from untestable evidence when determining the intentions of the parties and whether behaviour was aggressive. Just as intention is a fundamental category of human action to which we can all relate, so too is the notion of cause, for all actions are made with the knowledge or belief that an action will cause a particular effect. Courts will have to use this understanding to make objective determinations as to which actions result in which events to the satisfaction of the required standard of proof.

The likely libertarian approach will make this relatively straightforward. What we are interested in is the willful intervention of the defendant. As all such interventions result in concrete, physical action emanating from the defendant’s body, the question is merely one of tracing the physical outcome from the defendant’s body to the person or property of the victim. All cases can be classified into broadly three categories:

  • The body of A physically invades the person or property of B – e.g. A hits B;
  • The body of A physically moves an object that invades the person or property of B – e.g. A shoots a gun at B; A uses a knife to stab B;
  • The body of A places an object in a position which later invades the person or property of B – e.g. A leaves the hand brake off on his car; the car rolls into the person or property of B5.

By starting from the position of the act of the defendant – the only act in which we are interested in in order to generate liability – and seeing if it arrives at the result of physical invasion of the victim then the enquiry of causation is greatly simplified. In categories one and two this will be straightforward as the motion of the defendant’s body directly and contemporaneously results in physical invasion of the victim. The third category, however, is more problematic as it may require the further intervention of acts of nature in order to complete the physical invasion. Gravity may largely determine where my car goes if I leave its hand brake off; the flow of the river will carry my boat downstream if its moorings snap; a chemical reaction may cause an object created by me to explode under the right circumstances. At the very least the courts are unlikely to hold that such interventions of the laws of physics have any bearing upon the defendant’s liability where they are part of the natural and expected course of events. A car left with the hand brake off can be expected to roll down hill; a boat with a snapped mooring can be expected to be carried downstream. Where the intervention of nature is extreme or unexpected – e.g., a lightning strike blows up of part of a house and the debris strikes a passer by – the courts may or may not hold the owner of the house liable. If they do, however, there is always the likelihood that the defendant’s insurer will cover the cost of compensation to the victim, something we shall explore in more detail later. Completely new acts of intervention by a third party may result in either the defendant being absolved from liability completely – i.e. his act did not result in the physical invasion of the victim – or he may have to share liability with the third party, depending upon the circumstances. For example, a third party picking up my knife and using it to stab someone would not cause me to incur liability; however, if my boat snapped from its moorings and then a third party pushed it into the path of another boat the courts may find both parties liable for the aggressive act to the owner of the latter boat.

As we indicated, once the fact of aggression is established then liability is applied strictly. The effect of this approach is to hold an individual person wholly responsible for the voluntary actions of his body and those of his property. In other words, in each and every person’s action the risk that the said action may result in the invasion or aggression of another is borne by the initiator of the action. It is therefore the responsibility for each and every individual to ensure that his actions do not result in physical invasion. In most cases this will be straightforward to accomplish. We generally have a high degree of control over whether our actions will in fact invade another individual. If I walk down the street it is not difficult to avoid bumping into other people; if I drive my car I don’t have to break into a sweat to avoid ramming it into other cars. We can usually go about our daily lives without even having to consciously avoid physical invasion of other people. As each person possesses this degree of control we know from economics that placing the responsibility of aggression on its initiator will result in lower acts of aggression as people seek to avoid its cost. There will simply be fewer acts of aggression with which the courts have to deal. The difficult question, however, arises from situations where aggression results from actions which are innocuous, accidental, arise from innocent and typical moments of absent-mindedness, or simply, from the point of view of the initiator, amount to little more than going about his daily life; for example, knocking over your cup of coffee and scalding someone; or a moment of distraction that causes you to run over a pedestrian; kicking a football that accidentally goes astray. The precise context of such occurrences may also matter. In emergencies we are much more likely to rush and to avoid taking care of our actions because there is a pressing need at stake. In all of these cases does it not seem unfair to hold the defendant liable for something that was initiated out of a moment of human weakness, common to us all, and/or out of simple common behaviour which, but for the invasion of the victim’s property, would have been allowable? And is it not unfair to hold someone liable for his actions when he is, with all good intention, responding to a pressing need such as in an emergency?

Contemporary legal systems have developed mechanisms and doctrines to attempt to tackle this problem. In the English tort of negligence, for example, one of these is the so-called “duty of care” which attempts to narrow the field of actions where negligence gives rise to liability. In other words, there will be some situations in which you can be as negligent as you want yet you will not be held liable as you are said to owe no “duty of care”. Indeed even negligence itself is a vague and arbitrary concept, permitting the courts to consider practically every aspect of the situation while possessing no rationale as to which should be given weight in order to determine whether the defendant was, in fact, negligent. The problem with all of this is that however innocent or well-intentioned your actions, the victim – the one person who definitely did not have any input at all into the action – is still left standing with the loss. With the acquittal of the defendant forgotten is the man with the broken leg, the widow with a dead husband, or the child that is paralysed. To absolve the defendant does not make these losses disappear; rather it simply shifts them from the defendant to the plaintiff. In spite (or perhaps because) of some of the complex formulae and procedures that have developed in some of the case law, legal mechanisms such as the duty of care appear to be based little more on questions of whether the defendant behaved “reasonably” in his conduct or whether it is “reasonable” for him to be held liable for the full extent of the damage caused by his initial act. They therefore amount to little more than political vehicles as to who should bear the risk of loss from invasive actions that you initiate. The more restricted the liability upon you, the aggressor, the more the burden of risk shifts to the victim (or potential victims). Rather than watching whether our own actions will initiate aggression we will forever be on the lookout to protect ourselves from everyone else’s.

While it might seem unfair to hold a defendant liable for his “reasonable” behaviour, the fact of the matter is that we all bear the risk of initiating aggression through our innocuous actions or “reasonable” actions. Life is inherently risky and the risk of invading the person and property of others is a risk inherent in the existence of society, just as we bear the risk of falling ill or having our house burned down by fire. The libertarian does not expect legal methods – violence and force – to solve problems such as hunger, illness etc. and nor should it be used to mitigate risk. Rather we believe in the free market to do these things. Where it is no longer possible to mitigate risk personally the insurance industry steps in to pool risk across many individuals. Thus, in the unlikely and unfortunate event that you cause an aggressive action, you may be protected from having to compensate the victim by your insurance provider. But a libertarian legal system will not absolve you from the fact of liability simply based upon the reasonableness or normalcy of your conduct. This is highlighted more starkly in the situation where a person is put in the position of having to damage at least some property. For example, let’s say a car is hurtling towards you and you have to deflect it into either property A or property B. Property A costs £500 to repair, property B £300. If you own both properties then your “reasonable” behaviour would be to deflect the car into the property which was cheapest for you to repair – property B. You would then have to fork out for the repairs. If, however, property B was owned by someone else then your choice is now between damaging your own property A at a cost of £500 or damaging property B and having to provide compensation to the owner at the cost of £300. Again, your “reasonable” behaviour would be to save property A and damage property B. In both situations your behaviour is reasonable but it would be absurd to suggest that in the second scenario you should not have to pay simply because the damaged property is owned by someone else.

Finally, it should be clear that where the physical invasion is caused solely by the laws of physics then the invasion should be regarded as an act of nature and the victim will have to bear the full cost, or otherwise make insurance provisions in order to do so.

The Extent of Liability

Once the fact of physical aggression or invasion is established, the second question concerns the extent of the liability incurred. In other words, what harm or loss to the victim did the act of aggression cause? The defendant is to be held fully liable for the loss that his aggression caused. Once more the effect of this is to hold an individual person wholly responsible for not only the voluntary actions of his body and those of his property but also for their effects. In other words, just as you bear the risk of invading others through your actions, so too do you bear the risk of what results from that invasion. Again, just as the fact of aggression itself is, for the most, part, easily controllable, so too will any harm that is caused likely to be in proportion to the extent of the action. If I bump into someone accidentally he may come away with a slight bruise or nothing at all; if, on the other hand, I punch him in the face he is likely to end up with a broken jaw; and if I stab him twelve times he is likely to die. Normally, therefore, each individual can control not only his actions in order to prevent aggression in the first place but also the precise level of harm that his actions will cause. As we mentioned earlier, problems arise when your actions – invasive as they may be – produce outcomes that appear disproportionately severe compared to the action itself. This includes situations where the victim has an unusual or peculiar sensitivity to invasive actions – such as a weak heart that could be arrested by the most innocuous of aggressive acts. Is it not unfair to hold the defendant liable for such wild and unforeseeable harm that result from his act?

Yet precisely the same arguments that apply to question of liability in the first place apply also to its extent. However remote, unlikely or unforeseeable the results of your actions simply dismissing them does not make the losses disappear but merely shifts their burden to the victim, the one person who had no involvement. While it is within the economic interests of potential victims to protect themselves from the effects of aggression – particularly if they possess an unusual sensitivity – there can be no legal compulsion for them to do so and defendants should take their victims as they find them, warts and all6. Once again, therefore, every single person bears the risk of causing widespread damage even though his actions may demonstrate no or a miniscule degree of fault in relation to that damage. Where it is no longer possible for the defendant to mitigate the risk of causing widespread damage through controlling his personal conduct then he can contract with an insurance provider to spread this risk across many potential tortfeasors – just as he can so contract to spread the risk of aggressive behaviour in the first place.

Once again the question of causation arises and it is here that we consider the second part of this area. Having established that the act of the defendant caused a physical invasion to the victim’s person or property we then have to establish whether the invasive act caused the loss or damage to the victim. In most cases this will be extremely clear as the invasive act will be intimately and undeniably bound with the loss or damage in the same physical space. A shoots B and B bleeds to death; A’s car rams into B’s house and the house collapses, etc. In certain questionable cases it may be necessary for the courts to develop standards – for example, expert medical testimony from three independent sources – that will be sufficient in order to determine cause. The difficult area is likely to be in situations where there are multiple, independent causes sufficient to result in the damage and it is otherwise impossible to tell precisely which was the actual cause. For example, two shooters independently fire their guns at an individual and two bullet’s lodge in the victim’s body and he dies. Either bullet was sufficient to cause the death of the victim but it is not know which one. In the Fairchild case7 five employers of the victim exposed him to asbestos at various stages of his career; only one asbestos fibre was required to cause the illness that subsequently resulted in the victim’s death but it was impossible to determine precisely which fibre he inhaled was the cause. What should the courts do in these cases? It is likely that the courts will hold all of the sufficient causes proportionately liable, the exact proportions to be determined by the individual cases (such was the outcome in Fairchild). All tortfeasors will therefore share the burden of compensation at the remedy stage. Where one of the sufficient causes was an act of nature then the total compensation recoverable by the victim will be reduced accordingly. One limitation for the victim, however, is that liability between the defendants should be several and not joint unless the independent causes were actively co-operating. In the Fairchild cases, therefore, if one of the defendants was no longer alive or recovery was otherwise unavailable then the plaintiff could not recover that defendant’s portion from the other defendants. Victims always bear the risk that their tortfeasor may no longer be able to furnish a remedy for the harm done; this applies in cases of multiple independent as well as single tortfeasors. The contrary would hold that, if four of the Fairchild defendants were no longer alive yet one was then the victim would be able to burden that defendant with the entirety of the loss in spite of the fact that causation of the harm by that single defendant has not been established to the relevant standard of proof. This was the outcome of Barker v Corus8, which was, unfortunately, reversed by legislation, at least to the extent that it applies to asbestos. What we have suggested here is an equitable compromise between three factors:

  • Physical aggression being sufficient to generate liability;
  • The harm done to the plaintiff through no fault of his own;
  • The lack of a strict, causal relationship to the satisfaction of the required standard of proof between those two factors.

If, however, two tortfeasors are actively co-operating then it is likely that the courts will find their liability to be joint and each is liable for the whole. The contrary would permit the deliberate scattering of liability. For example, one could hire tens of shooters to kill a person at the same time (increasing the likelihood of death) yet burdening the plaintiff with the cost of apprehending and trying all of them in order to gain his full remedy.

Nature of Liablity

Having established the fact of liability and its extent, the third consideration for the court will be to determine the nature of the liability. This centres entirely on the intention of the defendant to commit the act of aggression and the classification of that act into a crime or a tort. It is likely that this categorisation will be extremely broad and will not have to enter detailed examinations of various modes of mind. Rather the sole enquiry is whether the act of aggression was deliberate and intended or was accidental. If it was deliberate then the act was criminal; if it was accidental then the act is tortious or the equivalent of “civil” liability in our contemporary legal systems.

Intention does not necessarily require the motive of causing the specific act of aggression. One might wish to blow up a plane in order to fake an insurance claim. The fact that killing everyone on board was not the purpose of your act would not absolve you from liability for murder as those deaths were the natural consequence of causing the explosion. At the opposite end of the scale some extreme degrees of recklessness may be sufficient to establish criminal intent even though the aggressive act was not sought deliberately by the defendant.

A further likely consideration is whether the actual resulting harm (in addition to the aggression in the first place) was also intended by the defendant. A shoots B and B dies; C pokes D and D dies. Both A and C intended an act of aggression and are both criminally liable but it would be extreme to suggest that C – who probably intended no or little harm at all – should be classified as a murderer just like A. It is likely, therefore, that the court will recognise gradations of liability according to intention of outcome, such as degrees of murder.

The upshot of all of this is that, at the remedial stage, a tortfeasor is likely to have to furnish compensation only and can then go about his life unmolested. A criminal, however, having been identified as a deliberate threat to the person or property of others, is likely to face further sanction, punishment, or rehabilitation before his reintegration into the community. Such considerations are beyond the scope of what we can examine here.

By retaining this classification we do not, in any way, mean to state that “crimes” are offences against the public or against the state, and at no point does the state replace the victim in the prosecutorial process. We are merely suggesting that those who seek justice are likely to demand this distinction between wilful criminal conduct on the one hand and accidental behaviour on the other.

Self-Defence

Under libertarian theory, self-defence is the physical response to an invasive act in order to render that invasive act inert; the physical nature of the response – i.e. violence – is therefore legitimised. How are libertarian legal systems likely to handle this concept?

Let us say that A is the individual invoking self-defence and B is the person alleged to be carrying out an act of aggression against A. In order for self-defence to be validated, there must be an actual, objectively identified initiation of an act of aggression perpetrated by B. The mere possibility or even probability of an act of aggression does not suffice. A’s misinterpretation of B’s behaviour also would not suffice. If B raises his arm to brush his hair and it was objectively clear that this was his intention but A, expecting an imminent strike, shoots B then however reasonable or in good faith A’s misinterpretation of B’s behaviour he would not be allowed to invoke self-defence and A would be held fully liable as an aggressor. If this should be doubted, then consider the position of B; if he is raising his hand to comb his hair and this is the objectively valid interpretation of his action but A goes and shoots him would he (B) be entitled to defend himself from this act and shoot A back? If the answer is yes then A is the aggressor and not the defender. If, on the other hand, B pulled back his fist at A in order to punch him and A shoots him to stop him then B would be the aggressor and A the defender.

The act of aggression must have been initiated – in other words, it must be in the process of occurring. While the physical intervention does not yet have to have occurred, its occurrence must be the imminent result of that which has already occurred. I raise my gun at you ready to shoot would warrant an intervention of self-defence, even though I have not yet shot. In some cases, threatening words may suffice if they can be interpreted objectively as a statement if imminent intent. Fully anticipatory acts of “defence” – i.e. shooting someone before he has a chance to initiate an act of aggression against you – are, however, not warranted. While someone may be very concerned at the presence of a peculiar or sinister individual the lawful response to this is to prepare oneself for an act of defence in the event that an act of aggression is, in fact, initiated. This could include installing extra security devices on one’s property or carrying a personal firearm.

What is the permissible extent of the defensive act? Once again, in our contemporary legal systems, “reasonableness” rules the roost with “reasonable force” being the seemingly operative phrase. However, at least in situations where the aggression is sudden and surprising victims do not have the time to judge the extent of the aggressive act and precisely which response is proportionate. Indeed, any such act – a robbery, a car hurtling towards you, a raised fist – whether deliberate or accidental may either result in the death of the victim or escalate to do so. It is submitted, therefore, that the correct approach is likely to be that any act that the victim deems necessary to bring the invasive act to a close will be a permissible act of self-defence. This may involve killing the invading person or destroying the invading object. What is not permitted is for the act of defence to harm innocent bystanders or for it to continue once the aggressive act has been rendered inert. So someone could not, for example, fire indiscriminately into a crowd in order to stop a robber from running away, nor could one, having shot an intruder, proceed to take an axe and hack him to pieces. These would all be fresh acts of aggression and would themselves be liable to legal sanction.


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Minor revisions and clarifications were made to this essay on January 16th 2018.


1This does not mean to say, of course, that extra­-legal methods cannot be used to discourage “harmful” actions that fall short of a physical invasion.

2This appears to be Rothbard’s approach – see Murray N Rothbard, Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution, Cato Journal 2, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 55-99, reprinted in Economic Controversies, pp. 367-418, at pp. 409-12; also, The Ethics of Liberty, p. 144.

3Indeed, one of the criticisms of the non-aggression principle – that it would outlaw practically all behaviour that results in innocuous invasions – is based upon this misunderstanding.

4Even if this wasn’t the case though, and if we could, theoretically, hold B liable so that C should sue B and B should sue A we must bear in mind that not only is the purpose of the justice system to enforce rights and obligations with clarity but that also the “production” of justice is itself a costly affair that consumes resources. It is likely therefore that a libertarian system will always take the shortest route and permit C to sue A directly, with B dropping out of the picture (unless B wishes to sue A for the theft of the knife). The same considerations would occur with accidents that involve a chain of property ownership – A bumps into B which causes B to bump into C which causes C to bump into D. D is likely to be able to sue A directly.

5cf. Richard A Epstein, A Theory of Strict Liability, Journal of Legal Studies 2 (January 1973)151-204.

6Some cases have been decided by whether the cost of preventing the invasion is higher for the defendant or for the victim, with the person bearing the lowest expense liable. For example, does a person have an obligation to “fence-in” his cattle to prevent it from wandering onto the property of another or does the latter have the obligation to fence them out? Where the pasturing of livestock was carried out intensively it was cheaper for the owner to fence in than it was for the third party to fence out and the owner was held to be liable. However, where it was extensive then it was less expensive for the third party to fence the animals out and he was held liable for the resulting loss caused by the invasion of the animals. Apart from requiring invalid interpersonal utility comparisons, this approach overlooks the fact that parties arrange their affairs with regards to all of the economic circumstances that they face, including the possibility of having to compensate a victim or litigate a case. For example, a farmer will fence in his cattle if the cost of doing so is less than that of providing compensation to a violated third party; a third party will fence out if the cost of doing so is less than that of litigating a case of invasion. Factored into this will be the likelihood of invasion in the first place and the non-monetary costs – time, for example – that would be involved. It is not the business of libertarian courts to either assess or correct the economic choices of the parties before them – rather they should apply the law according to libertarian principles so that these choices can be made with certainty in the first place. It is true, however, that the customary and conventional context may cause courts to preclude unusual sensitivities from permitting the condemnation of otherwise innocuous or innocent behaviour as aggressive.

7Fairchild v Glenhaven Funeral Services Ltd. [2002] UKHL 22

8[2006] UKHL 20

Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Three – Consent and Contract

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will transfer £100 to you on Thursday”

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

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

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

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

Types of Contract

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breach of Contract and Contractual Remedies

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

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

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

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

Minor Considerations

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

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

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

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

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

View the video version of this post.

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

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

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

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

5Rothbard, Ethics, p. 144.

 

One Law for All

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One of the obfuscating features of sociological discourse, whether this is in academic tomes or in journalistic articles, is the tendency to describe their subject matter in terms of vast, overreaching abstractions. “The market” does X, “the government” does Y, “companies” do Z and so on. Such categorisations are not, of course, unimportant; the use of shorthand is needed to quickly and clearly identify particular groups of individuals who each bear a common feature; however, that is precisely what is lost – that all of them are nothing more than nouns for “groups of individuals” – when use of these abstractions is taken too far. Such use becomes particularly meaningless when one starts to ascribe to these groups particular characteristics that are independent of those of the individual participants, as if the group itself is some kind of living, thinking entity. So we are always told that “markets” are “wild”, “capricious,” “erratic”, “reckless”, “selfish” and imbibed with, what is quickly becoming a clichéd term, “irrational exuberance”. “The government”, on the other hand, is always “wise”, “prudent”, “far sighted”, “selfless” and “serving”. But both of these groups are still populated by the same type of human – living, breathing, thinking, desiring, choosing and acting. Only an examination of the precise motivations and the outlets for their expression that individual humans gain from becoming a member of one of these groups can one hope to understand their true nature.

One of the most serious misunderstandings to which this type of thinking – in terms of bland abstractions – leads is the idea that “government” is somehow endowed with a different set of moral rules from every other group. We all know that theft is wrong, whatever the circumstance. Whoever you are in life, rich, poor, fat, thin, smart or stupid, every person can only gain the property of another by offering him something that he values in voluntary exchange; in short, he must offer him a valuable service. Taking property that belongs to another person is almost universally condemned as immoral. Members of the “government” however do not have to follow this rule, at least when acting in their “official” capacity. These people not have to offer anyone a valuable service in return for its revenue, they can simply take what they need to fund their ventures, i.e. whatever they want rather than what the person from whom they are taking the money wants. No private citizen is morally permitted to kill another humans being, whether this is for either personal or political gain. In the first instance he would be called a “murderer” and in the latter a “terrorist” (another very opaque abstraction). Yet those who populate the government, when they launch their foreign wars of imperialism, when they kill thousands of innocent civilians in drone strikes, when they blockade “rogue” states and starve its children to death, are permitted to do this with seemingly little question. Whether it is a good idea for the government to do these things is, of course, hotly debated but the moral right of the government to carry out these acts if it so decides is something that receives far less attention.

To further obfuscate the criminal nature of government we apply different names to everything that it does from that which private criminals do. So whereas private citizens “steal” and “rob” in order to gain “booty” (or the more formal “stolen goods”), the government “taxes” in order to gain “revenue”. Whereas private citizens are, as we have said, “murderers” or “terrorists”, the government is a “peacekeeper” or “spreader of democracy”. Yet what essentially is the difference between the clearly immoral acts that are committed by private citizens and the supposedly “moral” acts that are committed by members of the government? If you are an innocent civilian does it really make much difference to you whether you are killed in an armed robbery or whether you hit by a drone? Both groups – the private citizenry and the government – are populated not by devils and angels respectively but by humans endowed with the same qualities of rationality, intelligence and emotional disposition. All actions are initiated by one of these individuals or by individuals who choose to act in concert. An action that is therefore immoral for a private citizen is, therefore, immoral for a government citizen. Theft is the deliberate appropriation of property belonging to another without that person’s consent. How are “taxes” to be distinguished from this? Taxes are deliberately taken; the property belongs to another; and it is certainly taken without that person’s consent. For if taxes are truly voluntary then refusal to pay them would not land one in jail. Launching any kind of offensive, foreign war (that is already paid for with tax loot) that kills innocent civilians is indistinguishable from murder. Why does the fact that those who commit these atrocities in the government’s name, wear government-issued costumes, have a clear hierarchical structure, and wave and salute flags with pomp and circumstance, let them off the hook? The SS had all of these things – why are they considered a criminal organisation yet modern armies, navies and air forces are not? It appears that this question is hardly unique to our time, as St Augustine penetratingly reveals:

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor”.1

The idea that all of these immoral, government acts are legitimated by democracy is no justification. For what is true for the one is, in general, true for the many. If no one person can, alone, steal or murder then it does not follow that a group of people may, together, steal or murder. Further, if I have no right to steal or murder then neither can my so-called “representative” derive this right from my endorsement of his candidacy in an election.

If all of this, the whole division of morality in society, this separation into two distinct moral castes, wasn’t bad enough, it is made far worse by its sickening decoration and honour with the rhetoric of “public service” and “selflessness”. Theft and murder makes little difference to the victim whether it’s done by a saint or sinner, by a Samaritan or sadist. The whole cloud of altruistic verbage is designed to, again, obscure the fact that government is populated by exactly the same type of human being as the rest of society – they will attempt to further their own ends with the means available to them, and if immoral means are legitimated then they will most certainly take advantage of them. Even if we assume that they genuinely seek “good” ends and are thoroughly convinced of the “morality” of their position, it has often been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions; indeed, the Soviet Union, the political system that butchered tens of millions, was created and fostered by those who believed that what they were doing was right. But this is before you get into the very convincing argument that government – the sphere where it is permissible to behave immorally – attracts the very people who relish to behave in such a manner for its own sake.

Libertarians believe in a basic morality that is uniform to all people – that all people, King or subject, employer or employee, rich or poor, fat or thin, are subject to the same cardinal moral rule, namely that you can do whatever you want with your own person and property so long as it does not inflict violence on the person or property of anyone else. No exceptions. The actions of all human beings need to be examined in regard to this moral truth and no excuses are derived from being a member of a certain caste. The basic fact that individual humans, their motivations, choices and ends are central to everything that happens in this world, cannot be hidden by abstractions, sociological inventions, metaphysical nonsense, traditions, ranks, ceremonies, patriotic songs, flags and so on. Libertarians need to do the best they can to unmask the truth behind these illusions.

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1St Augustine, City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4.

The “Bedroom Tax”

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The furore over the UK Government’s latest changes to Housing Benefit appear to be bearing witness to what we might say is a “revolution within the form” – the neutralisation of a word or concept by changing its definition rather than challenging it directly. In this case, whereas once upon a time you were taxed if the Government took the money you had earned, it now appears that you are taxed if the Government finds a reason to give you less of everybody else’s money.

The announcement of the changes were followed by marches and demonstrations all over the UK, showing just how many people seem to be dependent upon the welfare state and how sensitive any reduction to its size may be.

Let us briefly reiterate and emphasise a few truths from the perspective of ethics and economics:

  • The welfare state is funded by taxation. Taxation is theft, the violent confiscation of other people’s property. If you are in receipt of welfare payments you are the recipient of stolen property. If people believe that taxation is not theft then it is incumbent upon these people to define it in such a way as to distinguish it from theft. Such a definition has never been forthcoming and any attempts have involved a twisted, distorted meaning of words that practically end up saying that theft is really voluntary. In particular it would be fitting to see the churches try to make this attempt before it starts wading into the debate;
  • That to pay people the fruits of productivity without having to produce lowers the value of productivity and increases the value of non-productivity. There will therefore be less societal wealth.

Merely arguing that benefits recipients are lazy and idle on the one hand and answering this charge with the claim that benefits cuts encourages selfishness on the other hand is of no relevance to these points we have made. What people should and should not do with their own money voluntarily is entirely up for debate. But there is no justification at all for one set of persons to violently wrestle money from another of persons. And yes, that includes everyone who has benefited from such methods – the bankers who received bailouts and welfare recipients. Ethics and economics are universal and apply to everyone and their laws should be applied to judge all situations whether they involve either the rich or the poor.

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