The Essence of Liberty: Property Rights and Non Aggression

It is a sad truth that many Westerners have never critically investigated libertarian political theory. Volumes upon volumes have been written explaining, describing, arguing, and expanding on libertarianism. This article is simply meant to highlight the most important implications of this political theory.  The following is a basic introduction to the philosophy of liberty. Liberty is a philosophy of nonviolence and private property.

                There are so many intellectual giants upon which these two foundations of libertarianism rest that I cannot adequately cite the ideas represented here. Instead I will provide a list of texts in which to explore the philosophical foundations in depth at the end of this post, including Locke, Mises, Rothbard, Hoppe and others.

                Property rights might not be self-evident but are easily understood. To put it simply, property ownership begins with the concept of self-ownership. Libertarianism champions the sovereignty of every individual. This ownership extends to the fruits of one’s labor and their justly accumulated wealth through trade, entrepreneurship, etc… To own something, one must be able to do with the object whatever he or she sees fit, provided the owner does not infringe upon another individual’s right to exercise their personal self-ownership.  The old saying holds true, “Your right to swing your fist ends at my nose”.

                In correlation with the foundational principle of self-ownership, libertarianism recognizes any infringement of this right as criminal, or illegitimate. Theft and murder are both forms of criminal aggression no matter if they are euphemistically referred to as taxation, or preemptive war. A libertarian does not grant an agent of the State extra rights. If it is illegal for you or I to do, it is illegal for a law enforcement officer as well.

                Some have attempted to refute the validity of the self-ownership principle, on several different grounds. Rather than discussing the details of every refutation that I am familiar with I will begin and end with what Economist and Philosopher Hans-Hermann Hoppe calls argumentation ethics. Hoppe derived this a priori theory from similar logic that libertarian standard bearer Dr. Murray Rothbard employed in his Ethics of Liberty, based in argumentation. Hoppe said:

                “Only because the protected borders of property are objective (i.e., fixed and recognizable as fixed prior to any conventional agreement), can there be argumentation and possibly agreement of and between independent decision-making units. Nobody could argue in favor of a property system defining borders of property in subjective, evaluative terms because simply to be able to say so presupposes that, contrary to what theory says, one must in fact be a physically independent unit saying it.”[1]

As Hoppe implies, if the body is not an independent unit owned by its occupier, then argumentation against such a belief would be impossible. If one does not own the fruits of his or her labor, how would an argument distinct and in opposition to self-ownership be proposed?

                Therefore, the first truth of libertarianism is self-ownership. From here a philosophy of peaceful interaction and cooperation amongst individuals can be derived. These are the traits of a sound political philosophy, and libertarianism is just that. The emphasis on peaceful interaction is a result of the non-aggression principle. In order for the concepts of property and ownership to hold true, the initiation of a violence, or aggression must be illegitimate. Aggression can take many forms, and circumstance is an important variable when considering what constitutes aggression. For instance, the act of killing in self-defense is legitimate, as one has the right to defend his or her own property, in this case, their body. Murder is an entirely different story and is the antithesis of libertarian law, or social code. To murder is also to steal the life of which another individual has ownership.

                Involuntary slavery is as well an affront to the libertarian social code. As was noted so famously in a recent NYT hit piece, Dr. Walter Block pointed out that it was not the labor per se that made American slavery so despicable, but it was the compulsory nature of such a system. The involuntary binding of one individual to another is a criminal act constituting aggression. There is disagreement amongst libertarians concerning the legitimacy of a voluntarily entered contract of slavery, but that is not to be confused with an ambiguity on the practice of slavery as we have seen it on a global scale throughout human history.

                A difference between libertarian law and law as it exists in the Western world today is the constitution of a crime. There are countless laws and regulations that are based in no certain principle, rather only the majority vote or corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. Running afoul of the millions of laws and regulations is a seemingly unavoidable incident. We see this today because the concept of a crime has lost its true meaning. A crime is initiatory aggression upon the property of others, no more and no less. For an in depth defense of certain “crimes” and immoral laws in America today from a libertarian morality, see Defending the Undefendable by Dr. Walter Block of the University of Loyola New Orleans and the Mises Institute.

                If true liberty promises full property rights in an individual’s body and his or her justly acquired properties and possessions, than the criminalization of certain drugs and substances is unjust and arbitrarily dictatorial. In the United States’ War on Drugs the true aggressors are the agents of government who arrest, murder, and imprison peaceful people acting within their right to own themselves. The same analysis holds true of those who voluntarily buy and sell “illegal” drugs, engage in prostitution, enjoy gambling, partake in moonshining, or any other victimless action that is against the law in the United States and most of the Western world. Governments across the world appeal to the morality of its subjects to gain control. The outlawing of these morally questionable activities has never been successful by any meaningful measure excepting the growth of government control and the loss of liberty.

                The final step in grasping the essence of liberty is applying the libertarian ethic to government itself. There are many grounds upon which agents of government break the libertarian social code, but a select few represent the pervasiveness of lawlessness and tyranny. For instance, in the United States the central bank called the Federal Reserve claims and exercises the power to inflate the only money supply that the government recognizes as legal tender. This inflation sends hundreds of billions of US dollars to large banks and lending companies creating a corresponding rise in nominal values reflected by Wall Street, and decreasing the value of what each individual earns and has saved. Understandably, there is debate within libertarianism about the legitimacy of fractional reserve banking, but what is agreed upon by most is that it must be contractual, or voluntary. Alternatively, within the current and mandatory system of increased inflation and legal tender laws, theft is perpetuated by the government onto its subjects.

                Most damning to the legitimacy of the State is its sole means of existence, taxation. Libertarians view taxation as no more than theft on a massive scale. Theft on a scale such as exists today is not only grossly immoral, but harmful to the economy as a whole. Government taxing and spending creates misallocations of resources, aides in the creation of the business cycle[2], and discourages development, innovation, and opportunity. Due to the inevitability of government to grow, the ever increasing rates of taxation, regulation, and inflation leads down what F.A. Hayek called The Road to Serfdom.

                In conclusion, the degree to which libertarians believe that the principles of liberty can be applied varies greatly amongst respected libertarians. The range varies from anarchy to minimal and limited government. Many believe that a small government is needed to protect the principles of liberty. It is certainly true that the human race would advance dramatically with a correspondingly dramatic decrease in the amount of government in, but it is also true that government cannot exist without taxation, and theft is a violation of the principles government is supposed to protect.

                However far each individual libertarian wishes to see the principles of liberty advanced does not have to be a divisive issue. The world today is a Statist paradise that will most certainly lead to death and destruction, the only real specialty of government. Merely expressing agreement and engaging in productive discussion about libertarian theory is essential today.

                I hope this short introduction created enough interest in libertarian political theory to further research any questions and refutations you have. The following is a list of texts that have laid the foundation for the modern movement of peace, freedom, and prosperity.

The Ethics of Liberty – Murray N. Rothbard
Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market – Murray N. Rothbard
For A New Liberty – Murray N. Rothbard
Human Action – Ludwig von Mises
The Economics and Ethics of Private Property – Hans-Hermann Hoppe
The Second Treatise of Government – John Locke
The Left, The Right and The State – Lew Rockwell
The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics – David Gordon
Prices and Production and Other Works – Freidrich Hayek
–  Adam Alcorn
Founder/Editor The Humane Condition
@AdamBlacksburg
Adam Alcorn

Adam Alcorn


[1] http://mises.org/daily/4641 Excerpted from Hoppe, Hans-Hermann The Economics and Ethics of Private Property.

The Civil Rights Acts and Individual Liberty

The succession of Civil Rights Acts through the 1960’s in the United States is often considered a watershed moment in American history. In general these Bills that became Law are seen as major victories for advocates of civil equality and most especially, black Americans. On the surface it is hard to view these events in any other way, and most often it is the correct view. There is a problem however, and one that may in fact aid in the understanding of the continuing problem of race relations in the twenty-first century.

There is a single distinction that can be made in regards to what the different Civil Rights Acts decreed. There were parts of these laws that eliminated segregation and discrimination in government sponsored or “public sector” establishments, and there were parts of these laws that violated the private property rights of others declaring it unlawful to discriminate or segregate one’s own private business. This is the problem.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s was a movement demanding civil equality, and equal protection under the law. These are the basic tenets of personal freedom as viewed through the classical liberal lens that the United States was supposedly founded upon. It must be made clear, to endorse the personal freedom of all men and women is not to endorse their ensuing behavior, only that the individual has the rights of person and property. If a society is to maintain freedom and equality, the rights of all private property owners must necessarily be respected, no matter how immoral one may feel about how the property is being used.

This unprecedented expansion of federal government authority over private businesses begs a question. What is the philosophical distinction between a private home and a private business? There is no such distinction that can legitimize a government claiming dominion over some, but not all private property. The mere fact that a business “accommodates” or “facilitates” the general public does not make it “public” property. This may be seen as proposing discrimination to some, but ought to be seen as defense of the smallest minority, the individual.

Another problem with specifically the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the requirement of businesses of over one hundred employees not to discriminate in hiring and the impracticability of its enforcement. An agent of the federal government cannot possibly know or prove whether a business owner is truly employing racial prejudice in his hiring decisions. The federal government’s solution was eventually to mandate racial quotas for hiring. It is likely that over time, further collectivization of race as a profound and distinct grouping only served to further racial tension. Former Congressman Ron Paul said on the House floor, July 3, 2004

“…while I join the sponsors…in promoting racial harmony and individual liberty, the fact is the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not accomplish these goals. Instead, this law unconstitutionally expanded federal power, thus reducing liberty. Furthermore, by prompting raced-based quotas, this law undermined efforts to achieve a color-blind society and increased racial strife.”

Contrary to mainstream opinion, opposition to this aspect of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not conflate with a support of the pre-1960’s status quo. It is perfectly within the authority of the federal government provide recourse to individuals whose 14th amendment rights had been denied in regards to segregated public schools, as determined in another section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It is also the responsibility of the federal government to require all polling stations to ensure every legally eligible citizen is able to vote, as determined by the Voting Rights Act of 1964.

The only aspects of the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960’s are those that infringe upon the right to private property. Again, contrary to mainstream opinion this principle of private property does not conflate to support of continued segregation and racism. It is important to recognize the real relationship between Culture and Law. If it is true that the progress in race relations that has been made since the 1960’s is not because of these aspects of the Civil Rights Acts but in spite of them, then we can say with certainty that nowhere in the United States could a “White’s Only” private business succeed financially. Our culture has evolved to abhor racism to such an extent that rational discussion about the Civil Rights Acts is often unattainable without being labeled a racist. The market of ideas would have put Jim Crow segregation out of business decades ago if not propped up by Supreme Court decisions and other legislative infringements on the rights of the individual. It is certainly possible that this evolution would have occurred with less racial tension than what was created by the infringements of individual liberties that was part of the Civil Rights Acts.

Legislation must be understood for what it is, violence. All legislation, whether written and signed by a majority of the ‘citizens’ of a democracy or the whims of a monarch, is backed up by the threat of imprisonment, and in many cases the implied threat of death. We should attempt to learn from the successes that occurred organically and culturally, those of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps his doctrine of nonviolence can be applied here to the federal government. One of the five main pillars of Dr. King’s doctrine on non-violence included “Active resistance to the forces of evil, but not the individual actors”. Dr. King believed that racism was “a plague suffered by all races”. Clearly the aspects of the Civil Rights Acts in question here are examples of active resistance to the individual actors. Brown v. Board of Education proved that it is not possible to change Culture via the Law. Ten years after the Brown ruling, only 9.2 percent of black students in the South were enrolled in segregated schools.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.     The Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s accomplished several admirable feats. In regards to the public sphere the federal government had every responsibility to guarantee equal protection under the law, and civil rights. Its violations of individual liberties have had long lasting negative effects. It is easy to understand why it is costly and often counterproductive to fight violence with violence, but what many fail to grasp is the inherent violence in legislation. The federal government has tried, again and again, to legislate morality. It does not work. Alcohol prohibition was a dismal failure as the “War on Some Drugs” continues to be. If the federal government had no hand in marriage, there would be no need for marriage equality laws. The rights of individual self-ownership and private property are ultimately what gives every individual the potential to improve his or her lot in life. These rights ought to be protected, not infringed upon by the Law. Cultural evolution is the non-violent alternative to violent, or political revolution. It is also the more effective alternative.

 – Adam Alcorn, @AdamBlacksburg

Founder, Editor at the Humane Condition

 

Taoism and Libertarianism – From Lao Tzu to Murray Rothbard

Lao-Tzu

Lao-Tzu

Lao Tzu and the work he is supposed to have authored entitled Tao Te Ching and was the foundational text of the spiritual and philosophical schools of Taoism. It has been estimated to have been written in the sixth century B.C. and is largely a collection of “Various cryptic passages suggesting the Dao pervades all reality…”1. A basic introduction to Taoism must include the path of wu-wei, or roughly translated “Do nothing, and nothing will be left undone”. Taoism evolved in a religious landscape that practiced the rigid Statism that Confucian ideals led to, and it was only a matter of time before the political implications of such a philosophy would become evident. Asian religious expert John Esposito noted “The Daoists felt that the Confucians harmed society through imposing rules and artificial practices that interfered with humanity’s natural inclinations.”2. It would take over 2500 years before the Western school of Classical Liberalism would pursue the political implications promoted by the Tao Te Ching. In the meantime however, the philosophical Taoists political theories have unwittingly become entwined with modern libertarian movements.

Murray Rothbard

Murray Rothbard

Twentieth century political philosopher, historian, and economist Murray N. Rothbard wrote about Lao Tzu in the Fall 1990 edition of The Journal of Libertarian Studies. The first section of this essay was entitled “Retreatism: Taoism in Ancient China”. Rothbard argues that Lao Tzu was “The first intellectual libertarian”3.  Rothbard is often noted as the founder of the anarcho-Capitalist school of the libertarian political ideology. While ultimately believing that all human interaction should be free of force, fraud, and coercion; Anarcho-Capitalists also understand the government as an institution based solely on the monopoly of the legal use of force. Whereas Lao Tzu and his Tao Te Ching preached minimal intervention in society as the most efficient means, Rothbard and others argue that there is no room in society for the State at all. The goals of the two political movements are almost entirely compatible however, with agreements on 99% of the issues. The first move is to limit governmental intervention.

Rothbard said of the State “To the individualist Lao-tzu, government, with its “laws and regulations more numerous than the hairs of an ox,” was a vicious oppressor of the individual, and “more to be feared than fierce tigers.” 4 Government, in sum, must be limited to the smallest possible minimum; “inaction” was the proper function of government, since only inaction can permit the individual to flourish and achieve happiness.” 5. Anarchist libertarian theory fully appreciates the limiting of State intervention along the way towards statelessness.

Directly from the Tao Te Ching Lao Tzu said “The more prohibitions you have, the less virtuous people will be. The more weapons you have, the less secure people will be. The more subsidies you have, the less self-reliant people will be.”6 The libertarian parallels are obvious here, and in very simple but straightforward terminology, Lao Tzu illustrated one of the most important points that libertarians have been attempting for decades. It was not until his 1978 book For A New Liberty: A Libertarian Manifesto that a political philosopher offered such a similar perspective regarding government sponsored welfare. Rothbard said “If people wish to be ‘spontaneous’, let them do so on their own time and with their own resources, and let them then take the consequences of this decision, and not use State coercion to force the hardworking and ‘unspontaneous’ to bear those consequences instead. In short, abolish the welfare system.”7

Neither Lao Tzu, nor Murray Rothbard felt that it was unnecessary to help the poor. In fact the majority of the Welfare chapter in For A New Liberty is devoted to historical evidence in which private charity has done a far more effective job at taking care of the less fortunate. It was in fact out of concern for the less fortunate that motivated Rothbard, and it is likely Lao Tzu would have agreed with Rothbard’s final criticism of the welfare state, “Perhaps one of the grimmest consequences of welfare is that it actively discourages self-help by crippling the financial incentive for rehabilitation”8.

While attempting to determine what led Lao Tzu to these philosophical conclusions, but kept him just short of advocating complete anarchy, Rothbard says “It surely was unthinkable for Lao-tzu, with no available historical or contemporary example of libertarian social change, to set forth any optimistic strategy, let alone contemplate forming a mass movement to overthrow the State. And so Lao-tzu took the only strategic way out that seemed open to him, counseling the familiar Taoist path of withdrawal from society and the world, of retreat and inner contemplation.”9 Rothbard felt it was intellectually possible to imagine a stateless society in his day, but under the strict rule of ancient regimes, the only possibility for Lao Tzu and his followers to avoid State oppression was to retreat from it, hence the name ‘Retreatism’ that Rothbard applied.

Through the works of Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek and other free market economists, the ideas of Lao Tzu have been unwittingly represented to the world. There is an emerging Austrian school of economic thought coupled with an emerging ferocity within the libertarian movement. The intellectual and philosophical links have been established between Lao Tzu and Murray Rothbard, and the spiritual aspects of Taoism will weave an interesting story as it makes its way through the libertarian anarchist movement.

– Adam Alcorn, Editor, the Humane Condition

As always, you can contact the author at thcondition@gmail.com or on twitter @AdamBlacksburg

NOTES (Thanks to Mises.org for the free literature)

  1. Esposito, John L., Darrell J. Fasching, and Todd Vernon Lewis. Religions of Asia today. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 271. Print.
  2. Esposito p. 271
  3. Rothbard, Murray. “Concepts of the Role of Intellectuals in Social Change Toward Laissez Faire*.” The Journal of Libertarian Studies IX.2 (1990): 44. Ludwig von Mises Institute. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.
  4. Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu
  5. Rothbard, p. 46
  6. Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu
  7. Rothbard, Murray Newton. “Welfare and the Welfare State.” For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. Rev. ed. San Francisco, Calif.: Fox & Wilkes, 1978. P. 191. e-Book.
  8. Rothbard, Murray Newton. “Welfare and the Welfare State” For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. Rev. ed. San Francisco, Calif.: Fox & Wilkes, 1978 p. 193. e-Book.
  9. Rothbard, Murray. “Concepts of the Role of Intellectuals in Social Change Toward Laissez Faire*.” The Journal of Libertarian Studies IX.2 (1990): 47. Ludwig von Mises Institute. Web. 14 Apr. 2013.