Uncivilized and Civilized Freedom: A Dialogue


S: You talk about how great free markets are. You insist everyone will do their own thing. Each will have the most possible liberty. Each will get paid their market worth, no more, and no less. Baloney! That stuff was exploded 100 years ago. By a guy named Robert Lee Hale. A lawyer. He was pretty famous, wrote a lot of books. That guy knew what he was talking about. If he were here, he’d demolish you libertarians.

L: You’re here. Give it a try.

S: O.K. He proved that government isn’t coercive. It’s private property that’s coercive. Government just moves the coercion around that’s already there. You libertarians have everything backwards.

L: How’s that?

S: There’s only so much freedom to go around. Take houses. There are only so many houses. Someone has to own them. If you own a house, it’s the same as coercing others not to live there. You keep everyone else out. They can’t use it.

And if it isn’t one person who owns it and uses it freely, it’s another. The government can shift around the ownership, but the overall freedom to control the houses is the same.

You libertarians would like to see the greatest possible freedom from being interfered with in your choices, but the law can’t raise or lower the total freedom. It can only shift it from one person to another. And that’s all government ever does — moves the coercion around, or, what amounts to the same thing, moves the total freedom around.

L: You make it sound as if houses belong to people at random. But they don’t. Most people own their houses with a clear title, and they bought and paid for them fair and square. They’re not coercing anyone by living there.

S: You don’t understand. It’s not a matter of who owns it. That’s arbitrary, and that’s Hale’s point. The point is that if you’re free to own it, someone else is not.

You think government is bad because it’s coercive. It’s not. It only shifts ownership around. The coercion — the lack of freedom — is already there.

L: Since when is ownership arbitrary? Since when? You’re just calling ownership "coercion…"

S: No, I’m not.

L: …that doesn’t make it coercion.

S: I’m not free to live in your house if you live there.

L: Right, you’re not free to live in my house, because that’s not part of what freedom is. You can’t live in my house because it’s mine. You’re not free to force your way into my house anymore than you’re free to steal my wallet.

S: What’s to stop me?

L: I and my shotgun. Or the police.

S: That’s coercion right there. Property is coercion.

L: Yes, it takes coercion to defend property, but it takes work to get that property in the first place. My house doesn’t impinge on your freedom, because what’s mine is mine.

S: But it is impinging on my freedom. That’s my whole point.

L: Does your freedom include the freedom to take my house? If that’s what you and Hale think, we’re living in two different worlds. Your society is uncivilized. It has uncivilized freedom — which means to take whatever you want to take and can take. Mine is civilized. It has civilized freedom, which means it has property and law, which means you are free when no one is taking what is yours.

S: How am I free if I’m not free to do what I want to? How am I free if I’m being restrained? No, what you’re calling freedom is restraint. It’s hidden coercion, and you’re supposedly against coercion. Consider human bodies instead of houses. You’re always talking about self-ownership. But if the law gives me the right to my body, it denies you this right. My freedom over my body prevents you from using it, and so I’m coercing you. And you’re coercing me when you prevent me from using your body.

Liberty is an empty idea. The total amount of liberty is a constant. If there’s more for you, there’s less for me. If you control both of our bodies, the total amount of freedom is the same. That’s why government isn’t any worse than free markets, and free markets aren’t any better than government. They’re just different ways of dividing up the same overall freedom.

L: Civilized freedom doesn’t mean that you control my body. That’s slavery! You’re talking about uncivilized freedom, where anything goes, and I’m talking about civilized freedom where there’s some morals and ethics.

S: What’s so civilized about your using a shotgun to keep me out of your house?

L: One thing you say is correct, it’s my house. You admit it’s my house. The shotgun isn’t what makes it my house; it’s what keeps it my house and away from thieves like you. My ability to pay for it is what made it my house. For me and most people, that meant a lot of hard work. And you’re being uncivilized to try to grab it without paying for it.

Civilized freedom means make and own. Uncivilized freedom means take. Civilized freedom means no work, no eat. The civilized morality says it’s right to work and own, and wrong to invade and take. The uncivilized morality says it’s right to conquer.

Uncivilized freedom means you are free to do anything you want to do and can get away with. You are even free to kill someone.

S: I never said you could kill anyone.

L: You assumed it when you said my having my body denied you that right. You imagine a situation where all bodies are up for grabs, where there are no rights. Also no property. That’s why you feel I’m coercing you by keeping you out of my house. If you thought it was my house, you’d realize I’m not coercing you as long as you respect my ownership. I only coerce you when you don’t, which is when you start to coerce me. You imagine a completely unfettered freedom, where even wrong acts are right. You imagine uncivilized freedom.

S: Maybe I do, but why shouldn’t I? That’s the way the world is, isn’t it? Dog eat dog. Whoever has a gun takes what he can.

L: You and I are not doing that at the moment. We’re arguing.

S: You’re not going to give me that argumentation ethics jazz, are you!? I’m arguing because you’d call the cops if I beat you up. There’s law and order. Without that, it’d be a jungle out there.

L: Exactly. But if there’s law and order, there’s civilized freedom. Whoever has a gun does not take what he wants. There is property. And if there is law and order and government takes, then it is a thief. In that case, it does not simply move coercion around, it initiates coercion and destroys freedom.

S: Well, what’s civilized freedom anyway?

L: The standard libertarian concept: We are free when we are not being forced to act against our wills by palpable violence or the threat of violence of others.

S: Then I still say it doesn’t matter who owns the property. It still is coercion over those who don’t.

L: And I say you’ve switched back to uncivilized freedom again. You can’t have it both ways. If the society has uncivilized freedom, there is no property. No one can say who owns what. If the society has civilized freedom, then there’s property. And if there’s property, then government intrusions on it are uncivilized.

S: So what do we have, civilized and uncivilized freedom at the same time?

L: Yes. The more that people make and own, the more the civilized freedom they have and the less the uncivilized freedom. The more that people take, the less the civilized freedom they have and the more the uncivilized freedom. Whenever and wherever we have property and it’s respected, we have civilized freedom. But whenever people start thinking that property belongs to everyone or that property is coercion and start invading it, then we have uncivilized freedom. They’re two different things that coexist.

S: Property is theft. Proudhon said so. People simply took the land and kept others off it. Property really is coercion. And if the government takes property from some and gives it to others, it’s not doing anything different than what people have always done.

L: Property isn’t theft. People have a pretty good idea what constitutes ownership. The government that intrudes on property, and they all do, is a disguised form of theft.

S: Society decides on property-with-a-gun and calls it civilized freedom.

L: The basis of property is not the gun. It’s working and identifying one’s work as one’s own. We either have law and morality that recognizes that fact or we don’t. I grant you this. Property takes force to defend, but the more that people agree on the law, the less the force that’s needed.

Here’s the real issue. How do you want things to be? Do you want everyone fighting all the time over who gets what? That’s what uncivilized freedom means. Or do you want us to live by some simple rules?

S: Not fighting, certainly. I guess I’d take rules. That’s why you should support the government.

L: I support government when it supports civilized freedom, not when it doesn’t. There are good rules, and then there are bad rules. Rules that support property, which people are working to make and wish to keep are fine. Rules that take property are not.

S: What’s so sacrosanct about property anyway?

L: Haven’t I given you my argument for property before?

S: I’ve heard tell of the positive incentive effects of property and the reduction in costs of fighting and settling conflicts.

L: I have a new argument. I argue that property is essential for human survival.

I say first that each man individually benefits from achieving his values.

S: That’s a truism. The problem is that my values may conflict with yours.

L: So they may, but secondly, each and every person cannot indefinitely accomplish this objective by taking of goods from others (and no production) because widespread and collective taking eventually reduces the supply of goods to zero.

S: I can’t dispute that, but not everyone has to take goods. Some can produce, and others can take.

L: True, but we are talking about a social rule, a rule that is broadly applicable.

S: I’ll go along with that.

L: Private property means an ownership claim on goods that is delimited and confined to particular owners and no others. It means exclusivity of control and use of goods. Absence of private property means that taking without regard to ownership becomes the social basis, that is, theft becomes the fundamental characteristic of interpersonal interactions.

If there is to be general and continuing production of goods, private property in goods, not theft of goods, has to be the social fundamental. This is because theft is non-productive of goods; and systematic, continual, and widespread theft, that is, theft operating as a social rule, eventually reduces the supply of goods to zero.

S: Is that your theory?

L: Yes. My positive (or descriptive) theory is that societies have property because they cannot live without it. The alternative, which is theft, means death. My normative theory is that societies should have property because life is better than death.