One Will Moyer recently penned The Limits of Libertarianism, which has gotten some attention among libertarians, and critics thereof, on Facebook and various blogs. In the article, Moyer, who implies that he is an ex-libertarian, makes various characterizations of, statements about, and criticisms of libertarianism, many of which I believe to be incorrect. Below I discuss a few of my disagreements with Moyer’s piece. As a preliminary matter, it will be helpful to set down a brief explanation of some of the basic aspects of libertarianism.
“Libertarianism” is the name given to a particular political philosophy. As I discuss in some detail in What Libertarianism Is, what characterizes libertarianism is its not “property rights,” since every political philosophy has some treatment of property rights. Every system has an answer to the question: who gets to control that resource?
What distinguishes libertarianism from other political philosophies is its particular answer as to how property rights should be allocated in scarce (i.e., rivalrous, contestable) resources. And that answer is: property rights ought to be allocated in accordance with Lockean principles of initial appropriation, sometimes called homesteading; contractual transfer; and other transfers as a result of torts or crimes. As Roderick Long puts it, citing Robert Nozick,
Libertarian property rights are, famously, governed by principles of justice in initial appropriation (mixing one’s labour with previously unowned resources), justice in transfer (mutual consent), and justice in rectification (say, restitution plus damages).
Another formulation that describes the libertarian idea is the opposition to “aggression.” The link between the so-called “non-aggression principle” and our property rights view is that we oppose aggression defined in terms of property rights so allocated. We believe aggression is unjust and unjustifiable. Thus, our shorthand use of phrases like “non-aggression principle” or “non-initiation of force,” as well general terms like “liberty” and “freedom,” and opposition to “coercion,” and so on—all of which are either shorthand or conceptually dependent terms on the more fundamental and primary notion of property rights. As an example: if I hit you, it is aggression because you own your body. If I take an apple from you, it is aggression only if you own the apple; if it is my apple and I am retrieving it from a thief, the act of force used to take it back is not aggression. We cannot determine whether a given apparent “border crossing” is invasion, or theft, or trespass, or aggression, unless we first identify who the owner of the contested resource is.
In fact, the reason property rights are more fundamental than, and a concept upon which “aggression” depends, is that the only reason there is a need for property rights is the possibility of conflict, and this arises only because we live in a world of scarce (rivalrous) resources. As Mises explains, humans act, which means to employ certain scarce means to achieve certain chosen ends. The scarce means are physical resources in the world that our scientific knowledge informs us are causally efficacious in interfering with the world, in changing the course of events to achieve some forecasted state in the future that is desired more than what is otherwise predicted by the actor to come about. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe explains in Of Private, Common, and Public Property and the Rationale for Total Privatization,
Conflict only results if our different interests and beliefs are attached to and invested in one and the same good. In the Schlaraffenland, with a superabundance of goods, no conflict can arise (except for conflicts regarding the use of our physical bodies that embody our very own interests and ideas). There is enough around of everything to satisfy everyone’s desires. In order for different interests and ideas to result in conflict, goods must be scarce. Only scarcity makes it possible that different interests and ideas can be attached to and invested in one and the same stock of goods. Conflicts, then, are physical clashes regarding the control of one and the same given stock of goods. People clash because they want to use the same goods in different, incompatible ways.
Even under conditions of scarcity, when conflicts are possible, however, they are not necessary or unavoidable. All conflicts regarding the use of any good can be avoided if only every good is privately owned, i.e., exclusively controlled by some specified individual(s) and it is always clear which thing is owned, and by whom, and which is not.
It is important, then, to emphasize that every dispute is always really about scarce resources. And every proposed or disputed law is ultimately about the use of force against some identifiable scarce resource: a human body, or other scarce resources in the world that humans can employ as means of action. For example, it is sometimes said that people “fight over religion.” This is not true. People fight only over scarce resources. Disagreement over religion may be the reason for the fight but the fight is always conducted with physical force, mediated by causal means (e.g. weapons), to physically control others’ bodies or owned resources. For example A may tell B to change to A’s religion or face death; the fight here is over who get’s to control B’s body. When the state threatens to jail people for disobeying drug laws, the state is asserting an ownership claim over its citizens’ bodies. When the state taxes people, it is taking their money.
So: we say aggression (invasion of property rights) is unjustifiable. This matters, in our view, or should matter, to those who care about justice and justifying their claims (as anyone engaging in argumentation or discourse about such matters undeniably demonstrates), As I noted in my 1996 JLS paper Punishment and Proportionality: The Estoppel Approach, [click to continue…]