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
Adam Alcorn

Adam Alcorn

[1] Excerpted from Hoppe, Hans-Hermann The Economics and Ethics of Private Property.

Dishwashers and Root Beer: The Case Against Public Goods

You may have noticed that The Humane Condition articles have been sparse over these past summer months.  This is in no doubt, partially due to my summer job working as an assistant chef.  However, my experience in the kitchen offers an insight into the wastefulness and destructiveness of public goods and property.

Even the Roads?

Even the Roads?

This lesson starts with a simple anecdote concerning dishwashers and root beer.  Specifically, I noticed that my dishwashers were drinking root beer at an alarming rate and far more frequently than anyone else I have ever observed.  What led to this particular behavior among my dishwashing staff?  Were they more gluttonous than the average American?  Did each and every one of them just happen to have a deep appreciation for the sugary drink?  I think not.  In fact, the answer to this lies in the economics of public goods versus private goods.  This is because the root beer was not supplied by the dishwashers nor was it allocated as private property among them.  In fact, we would order cases of root beer as a treat for the dishwashers to enjoy.  However, the distribution of the root beer was left up to the dishwashers.  To put it simply, the cases of soda were public goods for the dishwashers to enjoy.  This led to certain incentives which actually demonstrate the nature of man and public property.

To start with, the root beer was scarce.  In other words, there was a finite amount of root beer available in the kitchen.  When the supply ran out, the dishwashers would have to wait for the next food truck.  Because the soda was treated as a public good, they all had equal access to the supply until it ran out.  The public arrangement incentivized the dishwashers to actually consume more root beer than they otherwise would have. The equal ownership (or lack of ownership) is the cause to this wastefulness.  Each time a dishwasher took a root beer from the soda supply, he essentially took one potential root beer from each of the other dishwashers.  Likewise, each time a different dishwasher took a root beer the original dishwasher suffered from the loss of a potential root beer.  In order maximize their psychic revenue, it was in the self-interest of each dishwasher to drink as much root beer as possible so as to minimize potential losses.  Thus, the dishwashers often burned through their supply of root beer before the next food truck was en route.

How does this lesson apply on a broad scale with public policy?  The same incentives to burn through public root beer apply to public resources.  That is why private tree farms do not suffer from mass deforestation.  If the forests were public, it would be in the interest of every lumber company to clear as many trees as possible.  People often say that free market capitalism promotes Darwinian competition.  Yet it is distinctly the attribute of public property that would lead to competition and excessive lumber production.  If the lumber forests are privately owned, as is often the case, it is in the interest of the forest owner to clear only as much lumber as is needed to meet the demand of the market.  Anymore would burn through the entrepreneurs resources and drive down the prices of various lumber goods.  The forest owners could save the rest of their natural resources for future use without fear of suffering potential losses from other competitors harvesting their lands.

Public property rights do not only lead to excess waste of resources.  It also leads to an increase (not decrease) in pollution.  There are certain aspects of nature that governments do not allow private property rights in.  Certain bodies of water and clean air are some of these goods that remain in the public realm.  One might argue that oxygen is so abundant that it is not scarce and that it is pointless to assign property rights for it.  However, clean air can be a scarce good based on a factory and its proximity to people.

What does public property (or lack of private property rights) have to do with pollution?  Public property creates certain incentives for businesses to produce what economists call “negative externalities.”  To put it simply, it pays a business to send smog into the atmosphere or dump sludge into the local lake because there are no defined property rights in either of those realms.  To be fair, modern day governments do try to make up for this with certain regulations against polluting.  However, politicians are terrible custodians of the “public’s” property.  They can be easily bribed by the factories themselves or might not have enough of a motive to stop it.  It is important to note that the custodial political agency has as little property rights in said public good as the factory that wants to pollute it.

How should the “negative externalities” problem be dealt with?  The solution is to internalize the negative externalities the public property creates.  In order to do this, private property rights would have to be assigned to goods and resources that are now in the public realm.  If each resident of a small town had a property right in clean air, the factory would have to contract with each resident that its pollution would reach.  As the town becomes more and more populated, the harder it becomes for the factory to contract with each and every resident.

Furthermore, the benefits of private property rights do not just come from ownership outside of the factory.  A factory owner who owns the lake next to his/her factory is far less likely to dump sludge into it compared to if the lake was publicly owned.  This is what is meant by “internalizing” the negative externalities.  This is because the owner now has actual property rights in the lake.  The incentive changes from taking as much advantage of the lake as possible to preserving as much value of the lake as possible.  I do not need to work out the theoretical reasons as to why this is so.  There is peer reviewed, empirical evidence that backs this claim up.  I am referring to a peer review study published by the University of California at Berkley with support from Universidad de San Andres and Universidad Torcuato Di Tella.  The study itself is a fascinating read.  However, for the sake of brevity, I am going to quote the full abstract and nothing else.  I will provide a link at the end so that those interested can read the full study. Argentina went through a mass water privatization policy change thirty years ago.  The abstract explains the results.

“In the 1990s Argentina embarked on one of the largest privatization campaigns in the world as part of a structural reform plan. The program included the privatization of local water companies covering approximately 30 percent of the country’s municipalities. Since clean water and sewage treatment are critical to control the spread of infectious and parasitic diseases; access expansions, quality improvements, and tariff changes associated to privatization may have affected health outcomes. Using the variation in ownership of water provision across time and space generated by the privatization process, we find that child mortality fell 5 to 7 percent in areas that privatized their water services overall; and that the effect was largest in the poorest areas. In fact, we estimate that child mortality fell by 24 percent in the poorest municipalities. These results suggest that the privatization of water services prevented approximately 375 deaths of young children per year. We check the robustness of these estimates using cause specific mortality. While privatization is associated with significant reductions in deaths from infectious and parasitic diseases, it was uncorrelated with deaths from causes unrelated to water conditions.”[1]

The results seem clear.  Public property is harmful, wasteful, and leads to dog-eat-dog competition that is far more destructive than free markets and private property.

 – Will Shanahan, Contributing Editor for The Humane Condition

[1] Sebastian Galiani, Paul Gertler, Ernesto Schargrodsky, Water for Life: The Impact of the Privatization of Water Services on Child Mortality, (California: University of California at Berkeley), 2002.