The Libertarian Paradox

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As libertarians attempt to persuade others of their position, they encounter an interesting paradox. On the one hand, the libertarian message is simple. It involves moral premises and intuitions that in principle are shared by virtually everyone, including children. Do not hurt anyone. Do not steal from anyone. Mind your own business.

A child will say, “I had it first.” There is an intuitive sense according to which the first user of a previously unowned good holds moral priority over latecomers. This, too, is a central aspect of libertarian theory.

Following Locke, Murray Rothbard, and other libertarian philosophers sought to establish a morally and philosophically defensible account of how property comes to be owned. Locke held the goods of the earth to have been owned in common at the beginning, while Rothbard more plausibly held all goods to have been initially unowned, but this difference does not affect their analysis. Locke is looking to justify how someone may remove a good from common ownership for his individual use, and Rothbard is interested in how someone may take an unowned good and claim it for his individual use.

Locke’s answer will be familiar. He noted, first of all, that “every man has a property in his own person.” By extension, everyone justly holds as his own property those goods with which he has mixed his labor. Cultivating land, picking an apple – whatever the case may be, we say that the first person to homestead property that had previously sat in the state of nature without an individual owner could call himself its owner.

Once a good that was previously in the state of nature has been homesteaded, its owner need not continue to work on or transform it in order to maintain his ownership title. Once the initial homesteading process has taken place, future owners can acquire the property not by mixing their labor with it – which at this point would be trespassing – but by purchasing it or receiving it as a gift from the legitimate owner.

As I’ve said, we sense intuitively the justice at the heart of this rule. If the individual does not own himself, then what other human being does? If the individual who transforms some good that previously lacked specific ownership title does not have a right to that good, then what other person should?

In addition to being just, this rule also minimizes conflict. It is a rule everyone can understand, based on a principle that applies to all people equally. It does not say that only members of a particular race or level of intelligence may own property. And it is a rule that definitively stakes out ownership claims in ways that anyone can grasp, and which will keep disputes to a minimum.

Alternatives to this first user, first homesteader principle are few and unhelpful. If not the first user, then who? The fourth user? The twelfth user? But if only the fourth or twelfth user is the rightful owner, then only the fourth or twelfth user has the right to do anything with the good. That is what ownership is: the ability to dispose of a good however one wishes, provided that in doing so the owner does not harm anyone else. Assigning property title through a method like verbal declaration, say, would do nothing to minimize conflict; people would shout vainly at each other, each claiming ownership of the good in question, and peaceful resolution of the resulting conflict seems impossible.

These principles are easy to grasp, and as I’ve said, they involve moral insights which practically everyone claims to share.

And here is the libertarian paradox. Libertarians begin with these basic, commonly shared principles, and seek only to apply them consistently and equally to all people. But even though people claim to support these principles, and even though most people claim to believe in equality – which is what the libertarian is upholding by applying moral principles to everyone without exception – the libertarian message suddenly becomes extreme, unreasonable, and unacceptable.

Why is it so difficult to persuade people of what they implicitly believe already?

The reason is not difficult to find. Most people inherit an intellectual schizophrenia from the state that educates them, the media that amuses them, and the intellectuals who propagandize them.

This is what Murray Rothbard was driving at when he described the relationship between the state and the intellectuals. “The ruling elite,” he wrote,

whether it be the monarchs of yore or the Communist parties of today, are in desperate need of intellectual elites to weave apologias for state power. The state rules by divine edict; the state insures the common good or the general welfare; the state protects us from the bad guys over the mountain; the state guarantees full employment; the state activates the multiplier effect; the state insures social justice, and on and on. The apologias differ over the centuries; the effect is always the same.

Why, in turn, do the intellectuals provide the state this service? Why are they so eager to defend, legitimate, and make excuses for the corridors of power?

Rothbard had an answer:

We can see what the state rulers get out of their alliance with the intellectuals; but what do the intellectuals get out of it? Intellectuals are the sort of people who believe that, in the free market, they are getting paid far less than their wisdom requires. Now the state is willing to pay them salaries, both for apologizing for state power, and in the modern state, for staffing the myriad jobs in the welfare, regulatory state apparatus.

In addition to this, the intellectual class we are dealing with wants to impose its vision, its pattern, on society. Frederic Bastiat spends much of his classic little book The Law on this very impulse: the conception of the intellectual and the politician as the sculptors, and the human race as so much clay.

What we are taught, therefore, from all official channels, is something like the following. For the sake of mankind’s well-being and improvement, some individuals need to exercise power over others. On our own, we would have little if any philanthropic instinct. We would commit the vilest of crimes. Commerce would grind to a halt, innovation would cease, and the arts and sciences would be neglected. The human race would descend to a condition too degraded and appalling to contemplate.

Therefore, a single institution needs a monopoly on the initiation of physical force and on the ability to expropriate individuals. That institution will ensure that society is molded according to the proper pattern, that “social justice” is achieved, and that mankind’s deepest aspirations have some chance of fulfillment.

So entrenched in our minds are these ideas that it would hardly occur to most people even to think of them as propaganda. This is simply the truth about the world, people assume. It is the way things are. They cannot be otherwise.

But what if they can? What if there really is another way to live? What if the sphere of freedom need not be so confined after all, but may expand without limit? What if the general presumption against monopoly applies to government just as much as it does to anything else? What if the free market, the most extraordinary creator of wealth and innovation ever known, and the most reliable and efficient allocation mechanism of scarce resources, is also better at producing the goods for which we have been told we must rely on government? And what if the state, the greatest mass-murderer in history, the great drag on economic progress, and the institution that pits us against each other in a zero-sum game of mutual plunder, is retarding rather than advancing human welfare?

Just how liberating this political philosophy is becomes clear when we realize some of its implications.

It means that taxation is a moral outrage, since it involves the violent expropriation of peaceful individuals.

It means that military conscription is a fancy term for official kidnapping.

It means that the state’s wars are cases of mass murder, and that the suspension of normal moral rules that the state’s officials insist on during wartime is a transparent attempt to divert the normal kinds of moral inquiries that might occur to someone unschooled in government propaganda.

And it means the state is not the glorious guarantor of the public good, but is instead, a parasite on the individuals it rules. The left-anarchists were grotesquely wrong to condemn the state as the protector of private property. The state could not survive absent its aggression against private property. It produces nothing of its own, and can survive only because of the productive work of those it expropriates.

The state is the very opposite of the free market in its ethics and in its behavior, and yet so few supporters of the market bother to examine their premises. They continue to believe the following:

(1) The best social system is one in which private property is respected, people are free to exchange with each other, and coercion is not used.

(2) That is, until the production of certain goods is in question. Then we need monopoly, coercion, expropriation, bureaucratic decisionmaking – in other words, the most egregious contradiction of the principles we              claim to uphold.

To be sure, it may not be so easy at first to imagine the free-market provision of certain goods. And anyway, don’t we need someone “in charge”?

But by the same token, it should be just as difficult to imagine the success of the free market itself: without someone in charge of production decisions, how can we expect private actors to produce what people want, especially when faced with a virtually infinite number of possible combinations of resources, each of which is demanded in varying degrees of intensity by an unimaginable number of possible production processes? Yet that is exactly what happens on the market, without fanfare, every day.

I’ve been surprised not only by the spread of anarcho-capitalism – quite a surprising development, since it runs counter to everything people are taught to take for granted – but also by the attacks on it. You’d think, since we’re still a tiny minority, no important periodical would bother going after us. And yet they have. The reason? Because they realize, as you and I do, what these ideas mean.

Libertarians have put forth the most radical critique of the state ever posed. The Marxists claimed to favor the withering away of the state, it is true, but this can hardly be taken seriously. The coercive power of the state plays a central role in the Marxist transition from capitalism to socialism. As Rothbard put it, “It is absurd to try to reach statelessness via the absolute maximization of state power in a totalitarian dictatorship of the proletariat (or more realistically a select vanguard of the said proletariat). The result can only be maximum statism and hence maximum slavery….”

And without private property, how would production decisions be made? By a state, of course. The Marxists just wouldn’t call it a state. Again Rothbard:

With private property mysteriously abolished, then, the elimination of the state under communism…would necessarily be a mere camouflage for a new state that would emerge to control and make decisions for communally owned resources. Except that the state would not be called such, but rather renamed something like a “people’s statistical bureau”….  It will be small consolation to future victims, incarcerated or shot for committing “capitalist acts between consenting adults” (to cite a phrase made popular by Robert Nozick), that their oppressors will no longer be the state but only a people’s statistical bureau. The state under any other name will smell as acrid.

“Limited-government” conservatives, in turn – who in practice favor an enormous government footprint, but for the sake of argument we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt – want to reform the system. If we try this or that, they say, we can transform a monopoly on violence and expropriation into the fountainhead of order and civilization.

We libertarians are a million miles removed from either of these views. We do not view government officials as “public servants.” How sad to hear naïve conservatives speak of returning to a time when government is responsive to the people, whose elected officials in turn pursue the public good. The situation we face now, contrary to what these conservatives try to believe, is not an unfortunate aberration. It is the dismal norm.

There are two, and only two, versions of the story of liberty and power. One looks to power, as manifested in the state, as the source of progress, prosperity, and order. The other credits liberty with these good things, along with commerce, invention, prosperity, the arts and sciences, the conquering of disease and destitution, and much else. For us liberty truly is the mother, not the daughter, of order.

Some will protest that a third option is available: a judicious combination of the state and liberty, it may be said, is necessary to human flourishing. But this is merely an apologia for the state, since it takes for granted precisely what we libertarians dispute: that the state is the indispensable source of order, within which liberty flourishes. To the contrary, liberty flourishes despite the state, and the fruits of liberty that we observe around us would be all the more abundant were it not for the state’s dead hand.

We can find precursors of anarcho-capitalism here and there in Western intellectual history – Gustave de Molinari, for example, and in the United States Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker, and a handful of others. But no one developed it fully, followed it consistently, or assembled it in a coherent system before Rothbard. It was Rothbard who made a sweeping and systematic case for private-property anarchism, based on economics, philosophy, and history.

Very few people have either the courage or the originality to break radically with existing systems of thought, much less to develop their own. Courage and originality were Rothbard’s trademarks. Had Murray been content to repeat the state’s propaganda, a man of his genius could have taught wherever he wanted, and enjoyed the prestige and privilege of the top tier of academia. He refused to do it. Instead, he labored, often thanklessly, to bequeath to us an elegant – and massive – system of scholarship from which we can learn and to which we can add as we press forward toward Murray’s lifelong goal of a truly free society.

We can be thankful that we live in an age in which the work of Rothbard – despised, resisted, and suppressed by the purveyors of official opinion – is readily available.

And here is another side to the libertarian paradox: although our philosophy derives from a single proposition, the nonaggression principle, the development of and elaborations on that principle provide an inexhaustible source of intellectual pleasure, as we explore how the interlocking features of human society can work together harmoniously in the absence of coercion.

The intellectual class has its task and we have ours. Theirs is to confuse and obscure; ours is to clarify and explain. Theirs is to darken the mind; ours is to enlighten it. Theirs is to subject man to the domination of those who violate the moral principles all civilized people claim to cherish. Ours is to emancipate him from that subjection.

I will leave you with the final libertarian paradox, which is this: while on the one hand we are teachers of the philosophy of freedom, as long as we love and cherish these great ideas, we shall always be students as well. Continue to explore and discover, to read and to write, to discuss and to persuade. Violence is the tool of the state. Knowledge and the mind are the tools of free people.

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