Politics and Philosophy

Exploring Political Issues Through Philosophy

 

Libertarianism

Standing Behind Libertarianism

by

Jack Arambula

 

 

The Libertarian view of human nature

 

Issues with a minimal declaration on human nature

 

Resolving the conflict between individualism and the common good

 

Natural Rights?

 

Issues with natural rights

 

The right to property

 

Issues with the right to property

 

Final remarks

 

In conclusion

 

 

            When I take up a social issue, and passionately debate its pros and cons, ninety-five percent of the time I am debating a superstructural ideological point:  Is capital punishment justified, is socialism bad, should we scrap affirmative action?  These are all important issues, but they are all superstructure expressions for more fundamental and largely unspoken givens.  Standing behind all social and political positions there are one or more unannounced, but assumed givens.  These assumed givens behind arguments are similar to axioms in geometry.  If these axioms are correct then the logical derivatives that follow, such as some position on flat-tax or abortion, stand a much greater chance of being correct.  So it is that a good way to approach social and political positions is to first examine these primary givens that stand behind the ideological superstructure.

            I do not mean to imply that an advocate of a social position, or an ideologue for a political issue, would always be deliberately dishonest.  Sometimes it is true that the ideologue is little more than a snake-oil salesman.  More typically, the ideologue may completely believe in the position he is advocating.  He may do this without question or examination of the underlying assumptions.  The advocate may not even realize that the assumptions are there, standing behind his position and out of sight. This last is very often the case. 

Before I move directly into an examination of the assumptions that stand behind libertarianism let me offer one note of caution.  There are several different versions of libertarianism, starting with so-called Left and Right Libertarianism.  Left-wing libertarianism, sometimes called Mutualism, is definitely a minority position and only deserves the title “libertarian’ with the greatest discomfort, and I will not treat it here.  I will deal with Right-Libertarianism as it is the predominate theory at play, and from this point forward I will drop the “Right” in libertarianism with the understanding that it is implied.  It should be noted also that libertarianism is sometimes called right-wing anarchy.  Calling libertarianism anarchy is completely wrong.  By the end of this work I feel confident that calling libertarianism any type of anarchy will have been demonstrated to be a misnomer.  

What are these assumed ‘givens’ that underlie the libertarian position. There are several givens.  I will only consider the most basic three:  (1) The libertarian view of human nature.  (2) The libertarian idea of natural rights.  (3) The libertarian claim of a natural right to property, sometimes called ‘entitlement theory.’  Along with the discussion I will attempt to fully illustrate the implications of these assumptions and the difficulty that comes with handling their internal consistencies.  Restriction of space must be considered.

(1)  Human Nature.  As any Political Scientist will tell you, the issue of human nature – that quasi-involuntary baseline for our behavior – is one of the pivotal issues on which every political theory is hinged.  It is also one issue that is much overlooked, and thus unspoken.  We can go no further in a discussion of libertarianism without giving the subject its due.

With respect to human behavior, there is no libertarian writer that I know of who has not, or does not, use this term, ‘human nature.’ Indeed, it would be difficult to tease out the contingent libertarian concepts (e.g., natural law, natural rights, etc.) if they did not rest on some sort of belief in the nature of man.   The concept of human nature is a tricky one and libertarians approach the subject gingerly.  However, rather than dropping the term entirely the tendency amongst libertarians is to say very little about human nature, and with good reason.[1]  Controversial comments about the nature of our species do not auger well for the delicate tripod which supports the libertarian ideology (i.e. the natural right to life, liberty and property) which seeks to minimize the role of the political state.  To illustrate: if libertarians were to claim that human nature is intrinsically wicked they find themselves vulnerable to the ultra-conservative argument that a coercive state is required to bring order to the human propensity to violence and pillage.  On the other hand, if they claim that our species by nature is good they find themselves falling in line with communist and anarchist theories that lead to doing away with the state entirely, something libertarians do not want to do, and indeed, cannot do. Consequently, libertarians must pose themselves somewhere in between these defining boundaries on human nature. As I will demonstrate, this accounts for some of the problems with consistency found in the libertarian’s sensitive position surrounding the existence of the political state.

As a general rule, libertarians carefully avoid the hard case view of our species as possessing any inherent nature.  In general, they say that as man finds himself on this plane of existence he is simply an egoistic and rational ‘will to survive.’[2]  Man arrives on this earth a blank slate, a Tabula Rasa, as John Locke stated it.  Further, whether this ‘human will to survive’ produces good acts or bad acts must depend on rationality as man comes into contact with alternative choices presented by the world outside of him.  This all sounds rather neutral and boring, but I am attempting to cast the widest possible net to gather the greatest agreement on libertarian sentiments regarding the nature of man.

The bottom line is that when pushed the libertarians will say only that by nature man is an egoistic and rational creature with a self-interested ‘will to survive.’  This is a minimal declaration on the nature of man, and one difficult to debate.  That we as humans are primarily concerned with our own selves (are egoistic), are thoughtful (are rational), and desire to survive (are self-interested) clearly appears obvious. In addition, the minimalism of this position possesses the attractive feature of being both resilient and flexible.  However, this brand of minimalism also possesses a difficult side.  The issue of flexibility can quickly transform into an underlying sponginess when it comes to supporting the hard specifics of the libertarian ideological superstructure. This disadvantage is the crux of our discussion and we go over it shortly.  For now, let me just add that classic and contemporary liberals also suffer from this handicap, though not to the same extent.  By this I mean that classic and contemporary liberals, unlike libertarians, do not attempt to connect human nature (i.e. egoistic, rational self-interest) with some ‘natural right to property.’  This difficult connection will come up repeatedly for libertarians. At this point let me note that in the discussion of an ideal libertarian political philosophy a minimal declaration on human nature will solve one or two problems, but, as we will see, engender other, more difficult issues.

Issues with a minimal declaration on human nature.  There are several issues concerning human nature, but to begin with it is obvious that given a minimal declaration on the nature of man whatever is drawn from it will potentially have only a minimal application. The instability engendered by describing man as merely a creature of egoistic, rational self-interest is that such a declaration lacks the authority to support a firm ideological structure. Egoistic, rational self-interest might be a correct assessment of human nature, but the political direction such an assessment takes is far from as obvious as libertarians might like it to be.

First, as the issue will come up repeatedly in this paper, it must be stated that to say that human beings are self-seeking and self-interested in no way distinguishes them from the lesser animals.  All animals are concerned with their individual well being.  It is the nature of all animals to be self-absorbed in this way.  Obviously animals, like people, may be concerned with other things, parenting, grooming, and so on, but all animals are self-serving in regard to their own survival.  The only claim made by libertarians concerning the nature of man that serves to truly set him apart from the lesser animals is his facility of reason. It is with the facility of reason that the libertarian problem with human nature makes itself felt.  

The question now becomes: does ‘reason’ influence ‘egoist self-interest’ in the way libertarians claim it must?   As libertarians frequently cast an eye toward Aristotle in search of support for their position on rational man (and to a lesser extent, self-interest)[3] allow me to use Aristotle as to demonstrate the libertarian problem with ‘rational man.’ 

It is quite true that Aristotle claimed that what separates men from the lesser animals was the ability to reason.  However, the facility of reason leads the Greek philosopher in a far different direction than the one libertarians have in mind.  Aristotle’s view of natural man as rational man meant political man, that is, a man functioning as a part of the greater community.  So far there is no apparent conflict between the Aristotelian view of natural man and the libertarian view.  However, Aristotle continues, claiming that the best of political man, the best of rational man, of natural man, meant placing virtue ahead of all else.  The force of Aristotelian virtue reveals a problem for the libertarian. Aristotle clearly takes this ideal of virtue as found in the rational man, qua political man, in the direction of the common good and not the individual good.  For Aristotle virtue and the rational individual find expression only in the common good.[4]

To be more specific: the rational human species, according to Aristotle, has an innate propensity to develop complex communities. In Aristotle’s philosophy there is teleology to this development.  The goal of these communities was, according to Aristotle, a drive for virtue and justice.  By virtue and justice Aristotle meant the betterment of the common good of the whole, which Aristotle saw as having primacy over the individual’s good.[5]  In these communities the drive of reason was for the excellence of common, community life, not individual rights or needs.  The needs of the community superceded the needs of the individual.[6]  The individual derives personal good from the excellence of the common good.  If nothing else, we can see that rational man does not necessarily operate in the service of the self-serving, egoistic man as the libertarians would have it. 

Of course, the libertarian is not struck dumb by this.  The libertarian will respond that there is no conflict here.  The common good is actually enhanced by rational, egoistic self-interest.  The libertarian will insist that although it will appear that egoistic, self-interested individuals may be pulling in opposite directions (i.e., the direction of their individual self-interest) such appearances are deceptive.  Rather than produce pandemonium, this individual, rational self-interest will actually bring about a stable and healthy ‘common good.’ 

How does the libertarian argue that this apparent conflict between egoistic individualism and the common good is an illusion more apparent than real.  The libertarian can present one of two positions: (1) a metaphysical argument, or (2) a pragmatic argument.

The metaphysical argument.  Without entering a debate as to rather Aristotle’s reasoning is superior to the libertarian, or visa-versa, we can easily recognize that a troublesome issue with the libertarian claim to ‘common good’ is that one of the arguments rests on a metaphysical foundation.[7]  

For Aristotle, the ‘common good’ sits atop reason alone.  In the libertarian metaphysical argument the common good is reason as it is revealed through a secondary, esoteric medium.  This esoteric medium is one of the many forms of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ (i.e., The Market)[8].  It would be inaccurate of me to suggest that simply because the libertarian explanation for the ‘common good’ is metaphysical (i.e. the invisible hand) the argument is wrong.  It is more precise to say that giving phenomena a metaphysical foundation tends to make empirical verification difficult at best, and at worst, inconsistent; this problem with verifiability is inherent in the nature of metaphysics.  To avoid the charge of metaphysics the libertarian will tend to introduce ‘The Market’ in a way that will make it appear as empirical fact.[9]  But many issues remain indeterminate in this ‘appearance’ of empirical fact.  One troublesome indeterminate is that ‘market’ projection and prediction have always eluded the best minds.  This alone is a symptomatic indicator of the lack of any concrete foundation for ‘The Market’ as real empirical phenomena. The phenomena of The Market remain in Smith’s ‘invisible hand.’ As any philosopher will tell you, metaphysical solutions are notoriously slippery, and this reliance on a metaphysical entity has been a persistent thorn in the side of libertarians.  But given their view of egoistic self-interest as the heartbeat of human nature is it difficult to see how they can pluck it out.  At root here is the distinct possibility that the libertarian view of human nature might itself be a metaphysical concept.

By way of comparison, a much less torturous view of egoistic self-interest, as it relates to the common good, is a coercive right-wing, statist view (e.g., the fascist position).  This is the claim that a strong state is necessary to control a human nature that is driven by egoistic self-interest, a nature that if left unchecked will produce chaos.  Rational self-interest, according to the fascist, must be rationally controlled and channeled.  The energy produced by the destructive forces within human nature must be harnessed to pull for the betterment of a collective of individuals.  If necessary this harnessing must be done by coercive means.  It is for everyone’s good that a cooperativist state must arise to take charge of the chaos produced by egoistic self-interest and forcefully steer self-interest in the direction of the common good.  This coercive state is for the betterment of the self-interested individual.  To be sure, such a notion of a strong state violates the unshackled freedom of the individual, an unrestrained freedom which is at the pinnacle of the libertarian ideal.  We see, though, that rational self-interest can lead in directions not intended by the libertarian.

This brings the libertarian’s view of human nature to a fork in the road:  The nature of man as acted out individually, or the nature of man as acted out collectively in some form of some coercive political organization; the primacy of the individual or the primacy of the collective (i.e., the state).  Given the libertarian view of an egoistic self interested man the apparent answer is the primacy of the individual.  Here the weakness of their minimal declaration of human nature makes their claim of the primacy of the individual over the collective a shaky one, a claim held together more by metaphysical faith than Aristotelian reason.

The pragmatic argument.  Approaching the issue of the collective from a pragmatic angle the libertarian does not, and cannot, reject the well being of the community.  This is a very real and practical issue for the libertarian.  The libertarian depends on a healthy collectivized humanity to satisfy the needs of a privatized self-interest; the primacy of rational self-interest demands a collective laid bare for egoistic exploitation.  Restrictions of any kind that protect against the exploitation of the collective are intolerable to the libertarian.  On the other hand, wholesale exploitation will quickly eat up the material foundation so necessary for the survival of egoistic self-interest.  At this point it is easy to see just how attractive a magical solution such as the ‘invisible-hand’ appears.  Yet, at the end of the day any metaphysical solution such as the invisible hand of the market-place is recognized by practical libertarians as problematic.

Libertarian theory is purportedly based on the individual, but the assumptions standing behind the theory emphatically require a ready access to a well structured and well behaved collective.  The question confronting the pragmatic libertarian is in what proportion are the needs of the individual and those of an orderly social collective to be balanced?  Also of importance: how is the order of this collective to be enforced?  The structure and maintenance of the social order is a tireless political issue, but given the libertarians perspective on human nature it produces a particularly acute ideological issue.  Even in the face of a human nature defined as extreme individualism, no practical libertarian can reject the state, not entirely, or the coercive legal framework it can provide. The practical libertarian, despite any strong belief in that metaphysical entity, ‘The Market,’ clearly understands that the collective must participate in preventing its own disintegration, or outright collapse, and that this participation, if not voluntary (always a tricky proposition), must be policed in some fashion.  Here the coercive political state enters through the back door of necessity.  Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary the libertarian seems to need a coercive state to enforce an orderly and predictable collective.

According to Adam Smith the forces of the market are not enough to keep society from falling apart.  The pragmatist Smith points out that it is government’s proper role to see that the collective remains in good order.[10]  Just the same as any other political theory, the exact nature of the coercive political state is defined in relative terms, in this case, relative to libertarian philosophy.  Given the minimal declaration on the nature of man the libertarian finds himself operating from a political platform just the same as other statist philosophies with the only difference being found in the purpose of the state.

To draw all this together: the gravest weakness of the minimal libertarian deceleration on human nature as egoistic, rational self-interest is that it causes the libertarian to be unable to define the libertarian state with any real sense of internal consistency.  What I mean is this: The egoistic part of the libertarian view of human nature wants to reject the coercive, political state, but the rational self-interest part demands it. Within the libertarian matrix the egoist often stands at odds with the rationalist, an inconsistency not shared with Aristotle’s vision of the political state.

 (2) Natural Rights.  In political and legal circles this term, ‘natural right’ (qua natural law), is used and exchanged endlessly.  There seems to be no need to explain these natural rights, much less consider them in any analytical light. The common and automatic use of the phrase ‘natural rights’ seems to put it beyond any normal sense of conjecture or controversy.  The right to ‘Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,’ is a phrase deeply embedded in the consciousness of many.  We hardly give it a thought.  Humans are thought to have natural rights before they have political rights. We are born with them, are we not?  Indeed, modern political rights rest on the ideological concept of rights according to nature.

It therefore seems reasonable, since we speak of natural rights, that they must be rights according to some law of nature, or at the very least, rights that should emanate in some way from the natural world. Much of our political and legal thinking is based on these rights that we are told somehow spring full blown from the nature of things. It is simply how things are. The notion of these rights is both an assumed and heralded foundation of many a modern political institution, including those of the United States and much of Europe. Natural rights are presented as immutable and eternal.  Only what if things are not quite as they appear?

Issues with the claim to Natural Rights.  The fact is that the idea of ‘natural rights’ has a very skimpy history.  Until the 17th Century, and works of John Locke, rights according to nature played no role in political thought.  In the western world,[11] and prior to the 17th Century, only the Greek and Roman Stoics carried on any treatment of the subject, and that was a modest treatment at best.[12]  The fact that natural rights arose in political thought at such a late time as the 17th century would suggest that some analysis is warranted.  If it is not to be an historical analysis, at least some philosophical consideration is warranted.

Any kind of human rights, natural or legal, must have roots.  Hopefully these roots for natural rights are sunk in the natural world rather than the supernatural world.  Since we are not looking into the natural rights of ducks or wart hogs, these natural rights must be rights according to the nature of humans.  However, given the assumption of the libertarians regarding human nature this creates a problem.  For if we are to take the libertarian point of view at face value, viz., that the nature of men can be reduced to a simply egoistic, rational self-interest, or a ‘will to survive,’ then excepting for human intellect man’s basic nature is hardly different from the duck or wart hog.  It would follow that putting ‘reason’ aside the claim should be valid that the lesser animals too should enjoy the same natural rights as humans.  This leaves us ‘reason’ as the turning point for natural rights.  Only, as we will see, it is not clear in which direction the point of reasoning is aimed.

Simply because Homo sapiens can reflect on a ‘Right’ does not automatically support a logical process that leads to the possession of that considered ‘right.’  As opposed to the lesser animals, because I am a rational man means little more than that I can intellectually summon forth ‘natural rights’ as a hypothesis.  The mere ‘summoning’ alone is no formal proof that natural rights can reach the level of theory, let alone fact. I can think that I have a ‘right to life’ according to nature, but what animal in nature has a ‘right to life,’ or a ‘right to exist?’  Just because I can conceive of a natural ‘right to life’ it does not automatically follow that animals have such a right – or for that matter that animals, including Homo sapiens, have any ‘rights’ according to nature.  It is fair that we can say, along with John Dewey, that “Natural rights and natural liberties exist only in the kingdom of mythological social zoology.”[13] 

The reasoning of formal logic has definite rules.  In this case, logic demands that there be two or more true premises leading to the conclusion that humans possess natural rights.  There is nothing in nature, or ‘human nature,’ that offers the required premises.  Reflection alone allows me to consider not conger.  If I am being honestly rational, I must recognize that there is more desire than logic behind the claim of natural rights.  At the very least, the claim that natural rights are truly natural according to nature must remain highly controversial and existing more in the realm of wishful thinking than nature.  Consequently, we are left with only the vague feeling that ‘natural rights’ seem to be correct, forgetting of course that prior to the 17th century we would not even have had this vague feeling of possessing ‘natural rights.’.

Consider now what one libertarian had to say on the fundamental natural rights of man:

“Libertarians believe that liberty is a natural right embedded in a natural law of what is proper for mankind, in accordance with man’s nature. Where this set of natural laws comes from, whether it is purely natural or originated by a creator, is an important ontological question but is irrelevant to social or political philosophy.”[14]

 

          Although the writer undoubtedly recognizes a very real problem in claiming natural rights, most libertarians would not be so blunt in dismissing a forthright analysis of their origin.  John Locke, for example, was very much aware of this disconnect between man’s ‘natural rights’ and rights in nature.  Like the above writer, Locke glossed over the disconnect by claiming that natural rights were of supernatural origin.  That is, God created man with ‘natural’ rights both in and according to nature.[15]   In keeping both feet on the ground, it was just this kind of supernatural, metaphysical support for natural rights that caused the leading empiricist of the day, David Hume, to refer to natural rights as “nonsense on stilts.”[16] 

            The only pragmatic solution to this dilemma is to disentangle the nature of man from natural rights, which leave rights as natural with no empirical footing. To avoid this problem most libertarians would simply not open the door to an analytical analysis of natural rights.  Rights in nature simply cannot be rationally or empirically claimed. Natural rights can only be claimed through a supernaturally medium such as God-given, which greatly reduces their intellectual appeal.  

At bottom, if human rights are not according to nature then human rights are only according to the legal framework provided by the political state.  If human rights cannot be fixed in nature then to speak of rights as derived from nature is a matter of political ideology, not a matter of empirical fact.  Once again, this will introduce the unwanted political state into the libertarian equation.  The political state can easily accommodate natural rights, but not in a way that will cohere well with libertarian theory. The need for the coercive political state as the guarantor of ‘natural rights’ is a bit awkward for the libertarian to accept, but he can live with it.  To claim the state is also the originator of ‘natural rights’ is to expose much of libertarian theory as more of a collection of self-serving platitudes than coherent ideology.  We can see that in considering natural rights the libertarian can ignore the need for the political state only by ignoring the subtle contradictions.

            (3) The right to property.  While this ‘right’ may seem too many as the weak leg of the tripod, (i.e. the natural right to life, liberty and property) this ‘right to property’ is actually the leg that shows the greatest stability.  This is so because it can be argued that this claim to property does not necessarily rely on a right according to nature or some supernatural entity.  The claim to property makes more coherent sense as a right when it is accorded by the logic of our particular human situation.  Note here that I stress ‘situation’ and not ‘nature.’  This is an important distinction for the libertarian position.  Note also that I stress the libertarian ‘position’ and not the libertarian ‘ideology.’

The claim to property as a natural right goes roughly as follows: since I possess my body I posses what is produced by my body as my labor has made what I have produced an extension of my person.  Or concurrently, since I have a right to my own body, I have a right to what my body produces.  The origin of this claim to property as a natural right stems first from the ownership of the self (i.e., a derivative of the natural right to life), then citing John Locke, property is that which has been mixed with the labor of the builder or shaper of property.  Human labor has infused human value into the product or property; as a result of human labor, a human value now exists in the property produced.  I use the phrase human-value as “Property” is here spoken of in its loosest sense.  Intellectual property qualifies, as does the acquiring of “unclaimed” property, which would then be worked for the production of products. 

The libertarian right to property does not necessarily depend on any claims to natural rights, or right granted by a supernatural entity.  The right to property is often called the labor theory of value[17] thereby bypassing any appeal to a metaphysical premise.   Whatever I produce with my labor acquires the value of my labor, a value which by the meaning of my labor I own.  As property is the physical extension of the value produced by human labor, the product and the value of the product (i.e., property) belongs to the producer of the product as his labor has made it an extension of his person.  I am repeating this in several different ways for two reasons.  First this concept of property as labor-value gets a little tricky when attempting to dispose of this labor value as it must be converted into alternate types of value, and second, it is this concept of ownership of property that rests at the center of the libertarian idea of freedom.  Freedom is rooted in the right to property.  It is the freedom to dispose with property (i.e., labor value) as the owner of the property desires, without precondition or interference.

This rather straightforward position resolves two weaknesses found in other libertarian claims.  (1) God is left out of the argument, and (2) so is nature, at least per se.  The claim certainly seems to make sense given the human situation.  If I make an arrowhead, or compose a sonata, whatever labor-value the product possesses is to be mine by the dint of the labor-value inherent in the creation. It follows then that I should freely be able to do whatever I wish with my creation and the labor-value it possesses. I can freely give this value away, trade it for services, and at my death, freely pass this value along to anyone I wish.  As I said, this seems to make prefect sense – at lest as far as it goes. 

There are two secondary problems with this position when it comes to the manipulation and exercise of labor-value as property.  First, how would one secure his future, that is, protect himself against the caprice of time?  One obvious answer is by accumulating this human-labor-value.  One must build a storehouse of value against an uncertain future.  While this answers the first question, it exposes a second issue:  How is the accumulated value to be stored-up? 

This, the second problem is how to convert possessions, or their labor-value, into other commodities when outright barter is unavailable?  This is a problem that arose early on in human history.

 John Locke was keenly aware of the accumulation of wealth in the England of his day.  He was also aware that this wealth could not possibly have been created entirely by those individuals who possessed this accumulated wealth.  It was no trick for Locke to see what was going on around him.  Locke recognized that accumulated wealth was not so much the result of human labor and labor-value, per se, as it was of the business of trade and sale.  Locke’s answer to both of the above questions, as well as the conversion of labor-value into trade and sale, was the invention of money and contract: that is, the reliable storing-up of past value and the predictable transfer of future value.  In effect, what Locke was describing was the conversion of hard, labor-value into liquid, abstract-value.[18]  This conversion of value is intended to gain reliability and predictability.  The conversion also lead to a little understood and unanalyzed consequence: the turning of abstract-value into political power.  Thus, with the conversion of the concrete into the abstract the new variable of political power is introduced into the social equation.[19]  It goes without saying that this conversion was historical as well as contemporary to John Locke.  Wherever and whenever the abstract-value of money presented itself the conditions for coercive power were formed. Locke merely described, analyzed and laid the ideological groundwork for the emergence of new forms of concentrated wealth, together with their impact on evolving political relationships.

If one accepts this labor-value as the foundation for the claim of property rights, then this right possesses greater empirical verifiability and a logic more coherent than the previously discussed claims.  Further, one must not be troubled by the conversion of labor-value into abstract-value, which makes the accumulation of both wealth and political power nearly inexhaustible.  This last, the concentration of wealth (qua abstract-value) with the implication for political power, once again raises a problem of ideological consistency for the libertarian, viz., abstract-power implies the coercive, political state.

Issues with the right to property:  The issue with property rights that loom above all other is the problem of the political state.  This is not a metaphysical or supernatural issue.  It is a very real dilemma: How to justify the political state without making it appear obvious that the concentrated power of the state is the servant of concentrated wealth?   The attempt to solve this thorny problem has filled volumes of libertarian literature.[20]

In libertarian theory the individual’s right to property and the freedom to exchange must be politically protected from the collective interest.  This is fundamental to libertarian theory.  Not all libertarian thinkers agree on the details, but in general an individual’s property or the exchange of property cannot be managed, regulated or taken away even in the interests of the needs of the larger community. There must be no violation of the individual’s freedom, especially in regards to what he owns or has produced, even when it is at odds with the collective interest.  All actions surrounding property must be voluntary and unrestrained.  The interests of the collective must at times be secondary to the rights of the individual to preserve the free exercise of exchange and accumulation by the individual.  It is this suppression of the community in the interests of unrestrained accumulation that eventually leads to a few awkward ideological results.[21] 

The suppression of the needs of the community seems to represent state power rather than man acting as an independent, rational animal.  For example, it is difficult to explain by what trick of reason one can argue that an individual’s possession of a vital social resource, such as water, could be reasonably denied to the collective, while at the same time insist that the collective enforce its own destruction by self-inflicted coercive means if necessary.[22]  The potential for outright contradiction underscores the awkwardness of claiming democratic authority in favor of economic power as reified through the political state. 

Initially, this coercive power was seen by John Locke as merely an enhancement of personal security and survival, but the new abstract power of concentrated wealth necessarily went further.  To fully guarantee the security offered by coercive power concentrated wealth must be tethered to a platform that will both reify and legitimize its conversion to coercive power. That platform is the political state, with its monopoly on coercive power.  As Locke presented it, the political state was a voluntary binding together of men for the purpose of  “peaceably living amongst one another, in secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security.”[23]  It is through the political state that what begins as an enhancement of personal security becomes the power to maintain concentrated wealth through the monopoly of coercive power. So the essence of the abstract conversion is really one of changing concrete property into the property of power as reified and legitimized through the political state.   The difficulty comes with reconciling the State with freedom for all.  There are at least two possible outcomes to this ‘difficulty.’ 

First is the possible outcome found in the evolution of an independent political state. The conversion of labor-value into concentrated wealth makes the political state not just desirable – the need for reliable and predictable security for that concentration of wealth makes the state inevitable.  The existence of the political state does solve certain immediate concrete problems connected with the libertarian idea of freedom but not without internal inconsistencies regarding that same sense of freedom.  The transformation of abstract-value and future value (i.e. the contract) into coercive power (i.e. the State) creates what was first thought of as a guarantor of the free exercise of wealth and power for all.  That last word, ‘all’ is a problem.  By the inclusion of “all” what in effect has happened is that the state had become not just a guarantor, but a broker.  Because of the necessity to guarantee security and the rights of property for ‘all’ the state has become a legal arbitrator of wealth and power.  The state, as arbitrator, has suddenly developed the potentiality to be an independent identity reflecting the values of the power it brokers.  As those values primarily reflect self-interest, the state shows every inclination to become another self-interested entity with the ready availability to stand directly in the way of other rational, self-interested freedom.  This independent state model shows some of its greatest reflection in fascist ideology, an ideology which is at total odds with libertarian philosophy.

Regarding concentrated wealth, either the fascist model emerges as the best reflection of an independent state acting as a broker between the interests of wealth and the balance of society, or the independent state is seen as an agent of the ‘right to property,’ meaning that the state is the subordinate facilitator of the interests of those few who would accumulate the greatest amount of wealth.[24]  This last type of political state is best represented by the oligarchic model.  In the oligarchic model the state could easily stand in opposition to the interests of the community, yet unlike the fascist model would primarily facilitate the interests of the wealthy.

This suppression of the community in the interests of property rights is an issue of power that depends not so much on ‘nature’ as on the ‘nature of the political state.’  Here lies the rub: what the ‘right to property’ might gain for the libertarian in logical and empirical coherence it looses to ideological irony: i.e. for the state to be able to guarantee the ‘right to property,’ and also be able to enforce this right.  In either the fascist or oligarch model, the rule of the state must come first, thereby making the “power of the state’’ the primary consideration, not the ‘right to property.’  The fascist or oligarchy models of the state adjust more comfortably to these issues than the democratic model.

Final remarks:  At the beginning of this paper I asserted that identifying libertarianism with any form of anarchy is wrong.  By this point it should be clear that to one degree or other the three underlying and fundamental assumptions of libertarians all led to the existence of some form of a coercive political state.

To summarize the statist positions drawn from the assumptions that stand behind libertarianism:

First, the libertarian claim of human nature as egoistic, rational self interest is not stable enough to support the philosophy’s contingent claims. 

As I demonstrated above, the introduction of ‘reason’ trumps instinct and opens the door to other radically different claims on social organization that can be supported by the same view of human nature, (e.g., the Aristotelian view of the social order and the political state.)  Without passing judgment on which of the two views, Aristotelian or libertarian, is more logically coherent, it can be said that the type of social order (i.e., political state) envisioned by the libertarian must depend on factors other than those which emerge from their image of human nature as rational, egoistic self-interest.  That is, if natural egoistic self-interest is trumped by human reason, the libertarian vision of the social order (i.e. political state) does not reflexively follow.  Therefore, if human reason rather than instinct is the key to the nature of the social order the libertarian view must allow for its development on factors other than rational, egoistic self-interest. 

Second, a natural right in any form is at best a metaphysical claim. At worst a natural right is a completely arbitrary claim.  In either event, natural rights clearly do not exist in nature.  As these rights do not exist in nature then they must be seen as legal rights established by a political entity and only graced with the ideological dressing of natural.  It follows that whatever rights claimed by libertarians are more a matter of historical circumstance than universal principles.  Consequently, these rights neither being universal or instinctual, disagreements will arise, quite possibly bold disagreements that will necessitate the intervention of a political state with strong coercive authority.  The reliance on a legal and coercive framework stand in contradiction to the libertarian claim to be anti-statist.

Third.  The right to property is clearly the most contentious of the libertarian claims.  Since rights in any form do not automatically spring from the nature of man, or the found anywhere in nature, they are mere legal claims.  These legal claims depend on the nature of the political state, not on any agreed upon or immutable universals. 

Given the libertarian insistence on the legal ‘right to property’ libertarian philosophy depends on a coercive state to both grant this ‘right’ and enforce it against those who would take issue with the ‘right to property.’ 

In conclusion, In spite of their superficial claims of individual freedom and their anti-statist rhetoric, all the underlying tenets of libertarian philosophy support the existence of a coercive, political state.  Libertarianism only differs from other political philosophies in the kind of state that they desire.  This ‘libertarian state’ would support, by coercive means if necessary, the maintenance of property in all it forms: property and capital, both liquid and real, in whatever accumulated and disproportionate amounts these forms might reach.  

The libertarian state is not necessarily an oligarchy or fascist state.  However, inasmuch as the rights of property supercede the collective rights of the majority libertarian philosophy is decidedly anti-democratic.  It is not fair to call libertarianism a form of totalitarianism as the libertarian state would not involve itself in the total management of individual lives. In fact it would try to avoid this, if only from the standpoint of economy and efficiency.  However, there is little doubt, despite the libertarian claims to the contrary, that libertarianism represents a form of state tyranny.  No matter the possible legal afterthoughts, the presumptive ‘givens’ standing behind libertarianism all lead to suppressing the needs of the many in favor of the wealth of the few.   As stated above, the only apparent difference between libertarian tyranny and other forms of state tyranny are the goals and methods employed.

 



[1] A notable exception to this avoidance of discussion on human nature is Ayn Rand.  While it is not my intention to discuss individual philosophers, I will say that Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is not precisely the same animal as Right-Libertarianism.  Rand’s philosophy is a sometimes uneasy combination of Aristotle and Locke.  Many Right-Libertarians show a tendency to take the Lockeian-Rand and ignore the Aristotelian-Rand.

[2] See Ayn Rand, “Galt Speaks,” in Atlas Shrugged, and Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness.  I use Ayn Rand here as she is a widely respected spokesperson for libertarianism, and not because she represents a unilateral perspective on the philosophy.  In fact her philosophy would more property be called ‘objectivism,’ and while objectivism shares many points in common with libertarianism, there are also points at variance.

[3] To claim that Aristotle supports self-interest in the general way that most libertarians claim, most philosophers would agree, is a tortured claim.  To live the virtuous life that can achieve the eudaimonic character is clearly in the individual’s self-interest.  But it is equally clear that Aristotle never intended virtue to mean that life should be lived for selfish and egoistic ends.

[4] There are many other points of difference between Aristotle and libertarian thought, as for example, the exchanges of goods for profit, of usury, and the accumulation of wealth, are all, according to Aristotle, unnatural acts, and not worthy of rational man.  See Aristotle, Politics. 

[5] See Aristotle (1276b20)

[6] See Aristotle (1280b39, and 1281a4-8)

[7] Metaphysics is the study of principles that are claimed to either transcend or underlie reality.  The nature of ‘mind’, is one example, what would be God is another example.  To the metaphysician both ‘mind’ and God claim to have a relationship with physical reality, but rise above physical reality in a way that would appear to give them a separate life or a reality of their own.  This is a correct definition, but also a simplification.  If one is interested, there are numerous philosophical dictionaries available for a more detailed definition.

[8] Adam Smith: “Every individual intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in so many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”

[9] The ‘market’ is a largely metaphysical entity with empirical roots.  In mainstream economic theory a market represents any exchange of goods or services for money, or other services or property.  The principle of the market emerges spontaneously from human interplay and is not restricted to a specific place or time.

[10] Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, Book 5, 1, para 178

[11] Beyond the 17th century western world, only Islamic law has several specific references to natural law.

[12] By both the Greek and Roman stoics.  This was largely in reference to slavery, viz., that no man was by nature a slave.

[13] See John Dewey, The History of Liberalism.

[14] http://www.lewrockwell.com/rothbard/rothbard12.html

[15] For an extended treatment of this, see Michael Zuckert, Natural Rights and the New Republicans, (Princeton University Press,  New Jersey, 1998)  especially pp. 256-258

[16] Hume certainly thought that many rights, including property rights, together with an unequal distribution of wealth, were just and proper, but saw no need to infer them from “natural laws,” which he felt was pure invention.

[17] See John Locke, Second Treatises of Government.  See also, Adam Smith,  On the Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Ch. V

[18] By abstract-value I mean more than coin and currency.  Abstract-value extends to securities, bonds, and contractual arrangements between people and economic entities.  For a treatment of money as abstract value see John Smithin, What is Money, (Routledge, London, 2000) especially, pages 20-22.

[19] By political power I do not necessarily mean the political state, although this is implied. By the use of the phrase political power I intend the more basic definition of political power: viz.,  abstract-power means the power to determine who gets what, how much of it they get, and when they get it.

[20] To see the amount of effort that has gone into this at reconciling concentrated wealth and political power one might look into either of the two contemporary classics on the subject: The Libertarian Reader by David Boaz, or Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

[21] To be balanced, it should be noted that esteemed libertarian economist Fredrick Hayek found room to place limits on laissez-faire capitalism through a regulatory role for government.  In his book, Constitution of Liberty, Hayek argues for a government intervention through such things as work-hour regulation, manipulation of the monetary system, regulating the institutional flow of information and communication.  See, F.Hayek Constitution of Liberty, (University of Chicago Press, 1960)

[22] For an excellent attempt at resolving this type of conflict you might see Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, especially chapter 5.

[23] John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, Chapter VIII, sec. 95

[24] For the sake of space I am ignoring other state models, such as the political state based on communist principles.

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