The Object of Libertarianism
‘Libertarianism is a form of political free-riding because its supporters want the benefits of a free society without having to pay the collective costs of maintaining it’. Discuss.
This essay will examine the problems facing Right-Libertarianism not only from outside but also from within the body of Libertarian thought, in relation to their vision of a free society. Such issues, as will be discussed, involve the kind of property right they think should be enacted, as well as the consequences libertarian ideas would have, if put into practice. This essay will argue that the free society cannot consist of the wholly free individuals in the Libertarian sense, but instead of those who either restrain themselves by giving up their claim to property and thus assume a Left-Libertarian or Anarchist stance or are restrained by others, leading to the creation of a distinct public sphere, amounting in the liberal state.
Historically the word Libertarianism was first appropriated by Anarchists who sought to distance themselves from the negatively received term ‘anarchy’. However, the rise of movements such as anarcho-capitalism and laissez-faire economics and their use of ‘libertarianism’ as descriptions for themselves have necessitated the adoption of the terms ‘left-libertarianism’ and ‘right-libertarianism’ (Goodway, 2006, p.4). The main difference between the two is that an Anarchist would state “the best state is the state which governs not at all”, whereas a Libertarian would respond “the best state is the state which governs the least”. It is important to note that the former is not the latter “pushed to its ultimate logical consequences”, it is indeed evidence of an entirely different approach to matters of the state (McLaughlin, 2007, p. 106). At the same time libertarianism has emancipated itself from contemporary liberalism by rejecting the hierarchical structures of the welfare-state, it is in a sense ‘classical liberalism’ anew. (Duncan & Machan, 2005, p.4) This essay, as a reaction to the above quotation, will elaborate and analyse the intellectual edifice of right-libertarianism, as it is the predominant contemporary challenger of liberal political thought.
Libertarianisms political philosophy rests mainly on the assumption that property rights are natural rights, which are “morally prior to the state and its institutions” (Attas, 2005, pp.1f). Due to this claim “[…] there is no effective sociological distinction between the taxing state and the extorting racketeer” (Drake, 2010, p.84). Hence it is justified to speak of libertarians as anti-statist: they envision individuals trading unhindered by the state. Most libertarians, however, feel that there is a need for a ‘final’ arbiter in matters of property disputes. Even so, this position is not universal to right-libertarianism – many do in fact endorse the view that voluntary agreement could provide security (Murphy, 2011).
Furthermore, libertarians champion the non-aggression axiom, which states that all actions are to be legal, unless they are an active Initiation of violence against another person or another person’s property. (Block, 2003) This entails that every person is the full owner of his body: self-ownership is a central concept for libertarians in their conception of property, based on the Lockean Proviso. Libertarians argue that assigning property rights to scarce resources will enable individuals to use them productively and free of conflict. Accordingly it is legal to defend one’s property and life by all means necessary. (Kinsella, 2009) One might argue to call this distinctive form of argument “freedom as property”. As we have seen the libertarian’s free society is one of market exchange, strict property rights and voluntary agreement. The question then arises whether such a society is possible.
Libertarianism and the ‘free society’
Van Dun (2009) answered this question by conducting a thought experiment: Suppose for example a parallel world in which libertarian principles are enacted. Individuals consequently accept the concepts of self-ownership and appropriation, and that violations of property right can be met with justified hostility. As these concepts are common sense there is no crime and property can be dealt with by its owner in whatever way fits him best.
Imagine that all land on this parallel world is owned by individuals, thus every property owner will have his property surrounded by other properties. Remember that there is no obligation for agents to grant other beings the right to trespass. Under these circumstances any person can be confined to their own property without infringing that person’s freedom. Either by mutual agreement or by pure coincidence a person may find it impossible to leave their own property. Such an action is not a criminal offence – according to libertarian principle all is well. Neither the person’s right to property nor the person has been offended and therefore there has been no active Initiation of violence (van Dun, 2009). Still common sense dictates that the ‘victim’s’ freedom has been unjustly interfered with, however, according to the definition of freedom that libertarians affirm it has not. Worse still, the person whose freedom has been taken away may enter, out of necessity, into a contract that strips it of all rights. Slavery would be a logical, if extreme, consequence of this dilemma.
Van Dun (2009) argues that at this point libertarians may respond that due to the market economy such behaviour would amount to opportunity costs that individuals would not embrace. Yet, people are known to act in “irrational exuberance” (Parkin et al., 2012, p.541) in the face of prejudices. Hence the situation will not disappear even though it is to no one’s profit. Ultimately, most libertarians “[…] are reluctant to give up the conception of „freedom as property“ […]” (van Dun, 2009) and hence are trapped in this dilemma. Ergo we must conclude that the libertarian free society cannot be realised according to libertarian principles.
How then can this difficulty be resolved? On the one hand mutual agreement could establish a distinct public sphere. A government much as John Rawls intended it, able to preserve freedom by maintaining individual’s rights and limiting the ways in which agents can by mutual agreement give up their ‘natural rights’(Ball & Dagger, 2011, p.80). This government would then need the former libertarians to pay the collective costs of maintaining a free society.
Another possibility would be that the individuals abdicate their right to property and thereby act similar to Anarchist communes, reiterating Proudhon’s “Property is theft!” (as cited in Ward, 2004, p.4) Here the collective cost of maintaining a free society equals the individual giving up his natural claim to property.
The above quotation has indeed proven to be true – libertarianism has shown itself to be political free-riding. Indeed, as I have argued, the libertarian world has been exposed as being not able to guarantee the freedom of its possible inhabitants. By necessity the perfectly libertarian society will undergo changes that introduce either Anarchism or Liberalism as its predominant ideological form of organisation, if freedom is to be maintained as a fundamental principle.
Attas, D. (2005) Liberty, Property and Markets: A Critique of Libertarianism. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Ball, T. & Dagger, R. (2011) Political Ideologies and the Democratic Ideal. 8th ed. London: Longman.
Block, W. (2003) The Non-Aggression Axiom of Libertarianism. [Online] Available at: <http://www.lewrockwell.com/block/block26.html> [Accessed 7 November 2011]
Drake, M. (2010) Political Sociology for a Globalizing World. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Duncan, C. & Machan, T. (2005) Libertarianism: For and Against. [Online] Available at: <http://books.google.at/books?id=5wDQFBFM0FMC&printsec=frontcover&dq=libertarianism+for+and+against&hl=de&ei=Xui3TvDkJoXo8QOJo8CSBQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CDAQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false> [Accessed 7 November 2011]
Goodway, D. (2006) Anarchist Seeds beneath the Snow: Left-Libertarian Thought and British Writers from William Morris to Colin Ward. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Kinsella, S. (2009) What Libertarianism Is. [Online] Available at: <http://mises.org/daily/3660> [Accessed 7 November 2011]
McLaughlin, P. (2007) Anarchism and Authority: A philosophical Introduction to classical Anarchism. Aldershot: Ashgate.
Murphy, R. (2011) Law without the State. [Online] Available at: <http://mises.org/daily/5646/Law-without-the-State> [Accessed 7 November 2011]
Parkin, M., Powell, M. and Matthews, K. (2012) Economics. 8th ed. Harlow: Pearson Education.
Van Dun, F. (2009) Freedom and Property: Where They Conflict. [Online] Available at: <http://mises.org/daily/3794> [Accessed 7 November 2011]
Ward, C. (2004) Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.