In Defense of Rules

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Libertarians, especially of the anarchist variety, are often accused of wanting a world of disorder. It is the inevitable tendency of humans to organize themselves socially, and to form rules for civilized conduct, we are often told.

Perhaps some people who promote the idea of statelessness indeed shun rules in general, although I have been fortunate not to encounter many. In truth, we libertarians have no objection to rules. To the contrary, we see rules and indeed law as composing the cornerstone of a just, civil world.

Without rules of the road, there would indeed be chaos on the highways. Without the ability to set mutually agreed upon rules, there is no ability to create contracts, and thus no modern economy of any kind. Without an adherence to a higher and consistent law of individual rights, there can be no social framework even in which to set the terms for contract and other civil rules. From every board game to every board room, civilization absolutely requires rules to function.

If we libertarians had no concern for rules, we would have no problem with the state overstepping its own constitutional and common law constraints. We would not champion that certain minimum standards of procedure, such as habeas corpus and divided power, be respected safeguards so long as there is a state. But indeed, we libertarians, even anarchists, are among the loudest in condemning the state for violating its own laws, and showing what this tendency reveals about the nature of statism.

In fact, it is the negation of law that leads to the chaos we expect from state administration. As Lew Rockwell has recently said, in reference to the Bush administration’s secret interrogation policies, “in a moral sense, these are not laws at all. Neither are the arrogant orders that pour out of legislatures and agencies. Genuine law, natural law, is unchanging, and we do not have to be told what it is by some politician: you shall not kill, steal, bear false witness, etc. What the state emits is anti-law.”

This hits the crux of the matter quite well. The state is the only organization that claims to be above its own rules. It enforces laws against murder, theft, counterfeiting, kidnapping, extortion and involuntary servitude, while conducting the same on a mass scale. And to enforce its millions of pages of other dictates, it necessarily tramples on the natural law and rights of its subjects, domestic and foreign.

It is libertarianism, grounded in self-ownership, private property rights and contractual freedom, that best fosters a world of consistent, fair and coherent rules. And what of language? Well, remember that much of language and other social norms we take for granted emerged spontaneously, from voluntary cultural and commercial interaction and human necessity, rather than from the top down. Surely there must be standards, and there will be without the state.

As for law itself, to learn how anarchy, as we define it, actually promotes the law better than the state, and how most laws we find universally appealing emerged not from the state but from voluntarism and community, see Edward Stringham’s great compilation of case studies and critical essays, Anarchy and the Law. The problem with the state is precisely that it interferes with this process. Consider the contrast between private and so-called public property.

On justly held private property, the owner sets the rules. There are limits prescribed by natural law — surely an owner may not legitimately trick people onto his land and then change the rules to the detriment of liberty. He cannot invite people onto his land, instantly declare them trespassers, and use deadly force to expel them, for example.

But private property encourages a society that respects rules as a necessary component of civilization. If extended further, private property rights would undo the chaotic tragedy of the commons that plagues so much of the public sphere.

On public property, the government sets the rules, but no set of rules can be completely just. Some standards are surely more egregious than others. So long as taxpayers are forced to finance the maintenance of public property, however, there will be competing claims as to what the public rules should be. Should the streets allow cyclists or motorists to dominate? Are parades and marches a just, temporary homesteading of the roads, or are they a socialized invasion of the people who have made most productive use to the land? Surely, the government shouldn’t conduct random searches of people for guns and drugs, but should every public park everywhere be mandated to allow assault weapons and crack cocaine use in plain sight?

The state’s attempt to set the rules for public space is perhaps among the greatest causes of social conflict. Questions on prayer in schools, the teaching of Darwinism or Intelligent Design, school dress codes, smoking and drinking outdoors, immigration, environmental use and pollution, entrance requirements for the military and higher education, road rules and a million other matters are not completely answerable under a socialist property order. What’s more, the attempt to set such rules politically encourages social tensions, animosity and great erosions of civil and economic liberties.

I always err in opposition to state enforcement of rules. While I find it an acceptable rule that excessively obnoxious behavior not be permitted on every square inch of public space — while I do not think all public schools should be made to allow nudity, for example — I also see the problem of the state police enforcing even the most commonsense rules. While I believe we as a people must respect a set of rules, customs and norms based on equal human rights and dignity, I do not trust the state as arbiter.

Look no further than the state’s involvement in the rather uncontroversial field of promoting safe roads. In reality, the incentives inherent in statist organization lead to perverse results even here. Some cities are currently rethinking stoplight cameras, because they work too well in discouraging people from running red lights, thus yielding fewer traffic violations, fewer traffic tickets, and, in turn, less revenue for government coffers. In every area, the state as an organization benefits insofar as people violate the laws, thus proving its supposed necessity, so it has every institutional incentive to create ever more rules and make it more likely people will break them.

Even when the state enforces the unquestionably just proscriptions against murder and theft, it does so with undue brutality and violations of the rights of third parties — those forced to testify and serve on juries, those forced to answer during investigations, those forced to pick up the tab, and those imprisoned non-criminals forced to live with the true predators housed in their midst. There is a lawlessness even in the state’s enforcement of natural law. And so for public space, having the state more as opposed to less involved in setting policy is a dangerous idea.

I am totally in favor of people strongly encouraging the respect for the de facto policies most suited to the institution at hand. People should be quiet and respectful in libraries. They should not be loud and vulgar when passing small children on the street. They should drive on the road, walk on the sidewalk, and be polite and courteous in public parks.

Yet there can be no completely right answer for many of these questions. If on a public sidewalk, someone wants to set up a lemonade stand, while someone else wants to skate right through, there is no way the state can determine exactly who is in the right. Surely, there must be commonsense rules beyond and above mere property rights that the public mostly adheres to, just to allow civil society to live. Ironically, the more the government invades and expropriates private property, the more civilized, forgiving and respectful of one another we have to be just to prevent social disorder. And this becomes all the more difficult, as the state only encourages decivilization with its relentless attacks on property and liberty, its murderous wars and hypocritical social engineering, its shameless wholesale depredations on life and freedom through taxation, regulation, inflation and police state brutality. Even as the state requires more civility for society to survive, it encourages, subsidizes and indeed compels the opposite. The fact that society is as successful as it is, even given all this, is only a further testament to the importance of rules and the capacity of people to respect them, not just without state mandates, but in the face of state resistance.

It is a world of rules, social authority and law that we champion. We just oppose the arbitrary brand touted by politicians and legislators. What we defend is an order emerging naturally from civilized conduct, private property and individual liberty. We are truly the genuine defenders of the rule of natural law and a sustainable social order. Of course, we also are the ones favoring true tolerance rooted in private and community rights. Religious communities would be free to raise their children in peace, those on the cultural fringe would be free to engage in decadence on their own private property, cultural conservatives could keep drugs out of their domain and cultural liberals could keep guns out of their communities, and many of the more trivial battles in the culture war would be made moot, once the greater culture embraced the fundamental guidelines of private property. To the extent there is a legitimate culture war, it is the battle for this sense of social order, one that stands in conflict with the state. This rule — the rule of respecting each other’s boundaries — would lead to social harmony and a rebirth of civilization, which is why we must hold it high against the state.

Libertarians favor rules, and indeed in a significant sense we want those rules more rigorously respected. For the political establishment, this would mean its days would be numbered. For a free, prosperous and orderly society, it would only be the beginning.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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