XXII – Are There Limits to Liberty?

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"Perhaps
the following hypothetical will help you," I explain. I proceed
to hold up an eraser, and tell them: "imagine this is my brick.
Imagine, further, that you have a lovely plate glass window in your
house, and that I would like to throw my brick through your window.
Based upon the principle I have just enunciated, am I entitled to
do so?"

Many of the students begin to give in, saying "yeah, I guess
so." But eventually, there will be one or two who will catch
on and reply: "you only said that you could do with your
property as you saw fit, and my window is not your property!"
I go on to explain how the property boundary defines the range of
my authority: I may break my own window with the brick —
or hit myself over the head with it, if I choose — but I may not,
consistent with a property principle, intrude upon your property.

At this point, my students are prepared to consider the broader
social implications of "property." I tell them that this
is not a course about "things," but about the relationships
of people to one another concerning the question: who gets to
make decisions about what?, a question so ably put by the late
Robert LeFevre. "Who gets to make decisions about the lives
and other property interests of people? Will individuals do this
for themselves, or will others exercise such authority over them?
In other words," I go on, "this is a course in the social
application of metaphysics."

In time, most of my students begin to gain an understanding that
individual liberty and the private ownership of property
are synonymous concepts. To enjoy liberty is to exercise
unrestricted authority over not only your life, but over
those extensions of your life that we have come to regard as property.
Because every living being must occupy space and be able
to consume external sources of energy in order to continue existing,
the property question goes to the very essence of life itself.

And so, we return to the question asked by this article: are
there limits to your liberty? If you have learned to accept
the necessity for leashes and leg-chains on human nature, you will
probably regard an affirmative response as a self-evident proposition.
But if you do answer "yes," then who will define those
limitations? Do you not see that whoever you acknowledge as the
definer of your liberties can set them as narrowly or as broadly
as they choose, restricted only by a fear of your possible
resistance? Is it not also evident that, by presuming to direct
the range of your behavior, they have set themselves up as the masters
of your life?

What can be said of the comparative states of mind of those who
insist upon their unrestricted liberty, and those who are prepared
to accept restrictions that others — particularly the state — have
placed upon that liberty? The former will vigorously oppose such
intrusions, asserting a claim to immunity from trespass as the basis
for their insistence. There is, within such persons, a kind of spiritual
imperative that will not allow for the subjugation of those autonomous
qualities that give expression to all of life.

On the other hand, for those who have accepted state limitations
upon their liberties, their response to further restrictions will
amount to little more than a plea for indulgences. For so long has
their systematic conditioning alienated them from the life spirit
that, like trained animals, their aspirations reach no further than
to be well fed, well cared for, and made secure from fears.

The conflict-ridden nature of modern society is largely accounted
for by the kind of thinking which, in F.A. Hayek's words, amounts
to a "fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces." Unable
to see, in a system of privately owned property, the informal processes
by which the exercise of our liberties are self-limiting
(i.e., the range of what you or I may properly do is constrained
to the boundaries of what each of us owns), many resort to the state
to define the scope of liberty. It is because of the wholesale
abandonment of the property principle that we now experience, in
statism, what Thomas Hobbes saw in a "state of nature,"
namely, a "condition of war of every one against every one,"
and for which he envisioned the state as a solution!

Since Hobbes, we have had three and a half centuries of experience
with statism from which to judge the consequences of restricting
the liberties of free men and women. Given the 200 million humans
killed by wars and genocidal practices in the 20th century
alone, the depressions and other economic dislocations caused by
state intrusion into the marketplace, and the countless number of
intergroup conflicts and bloodbaths perpetrated all over the globe,
it is not individual liberty that ought to be on the
defensive, but the state! It is state operatives – systematically
regulating and despoiling our property interests – who are
greater threats to our well-being than the occasional muggers.

But to fully appreciate how privately owned property and individual
liberty can generate order in our world, we must be prepared to
accept the property principle as an unqualified social system. It
is meaningless to assert "I believe in privately owned property
as long as the owner behaves as I want him to." To take
such a position is, again, to have external authorities defining
the range of our liberty. Voltaire's classic statement ("I
may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the
death your right to say it") has long been insisted upon by
intellectuals, who find it useful for preserving the liberties
in which they are interested. But what if we were to extend the
range of this proposition to human action in general? What if we
substituted the word "do" for "say" in this
quotation, remembering that the "doing" is confined to
one's property interests?

A test of our commitment to liberty is found in our willingness
to respect the authority of each of our neighbors to have unrestricted
power over their individual lives and property. This is often
difficult for us to do, particularly when we see others engaging
in conduct that greatly offends our tastes and sensibilities. Let
us see how far this respect for the liberty of others will take
us.

Because the property principle, by definition, precludes a person
from trespassing upon the life or property interests of another,
victimizing crimes — all of which are property trespasses
— are not defensible as exercises in liberty. The man who is beating
up, murdering, or raping another person, is not doing with
his life or property as he sees fit – just as in my
brick/plate glass window example — but is violating the property
interests of his victim. But what about practices that might be
distasteful to us, but for which no property trespass is
involved?

Let us take the example of a men's club that chooses not to allow
women as members. A sign appears at the entrance to this club expressing
such a policy. A woman tries to join the club and is refused. Since
no one has a property right entitling them to do business with an
unwilling buyer or seller, would you defend the club's lawful right
to exclude this woman? I am not asking if you would approve of
its decision, but whether you are prepared — for the protection
of your own unfettered liberty — to support the club's right
to make such a decision? Do you understand that the unrestricted
liberty to decide with whom to share – or exclude from –
what is yours goes to the very essence of property ownership? From
the same civilizing sentiments that allow you to respect the liberty
of others to attend churches of which you might disapprove, can
you acknowledge this organization's rightful authority to engage
in an act you might find offensive?

If you answer "no" to this question, you have surrendered
as much authority over your life and property as others are prepared
to persuade the state to exercise in furtherance of their interests
or values. Today's prohibition of private gender discrimination
can become tomorrow's mandate of segregated practices. You cannot
place provisos, qualifications or riders on the property principle
— no matter how narrowly defined or how fervently desired — without
opening the door to anyone else to place their favored restrictions
upon you.

Those who dislike such discriminatory practices are, of course,
free to exercise their liberty by refusing to do business
with this club or its members, and to try to persuade others to
do likewise. But by calling upon the state to forcibly deprive the
club of its authority to exclude whomever it chooses to exclude,
we quickly descend to the kind of society we see all around us:
a world of claimants upon the lives and property of others, and
with no respect for the inviolability of either.

The idea of "limited liberty" is as self-contradictory
as notions of limited pregnancies, squared circles, or dry rain.
Liberty, like genuine love, is indivisible and unconditional, not
subject to such qualifications as "provided that" or "as
long as." For the same reason that conditional love is but
a form of affection, conditional liberty is but a synonym for state-conferred
privileges. Those who argue for liberty on such limited grounds
are doing nothing more than pleading for an extended leg-chain!

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