Books / Digital Text

From 2014's speech "A Realistic Libertarianism." The following is an excerpt. The full version is available in pdf and html.

Libertarianism is logically consistent with almost any attitude toward culture, society, religion, or moral principle. In strict logic, libertarian political doctrine can be severed from all other considerations; logically one can be — and indeed most libertarians in fact are: hedonists, libertines, immoralists, militant enemies of religion in general and Christianity in particular — and still be consistent adherents of libertarian politics. In fact, in strict logic, one can be a consistent devotee of property rights politically and be a moocher, a scamster, and a petty crook and racketeer in practice, as all too many libertarians turn out to be. Strictly logically, one can do these things, but psychologically, sociologically, and in practice, it simply doesn’t work that way. [my emphasis]

Let me begin with a few remarks on libertarianism as a pure deductive theory.

If there were no scarcity in the world, human conflicts would be impossible. Interpersonal conflicts are always and everywhere conflicts concerning scarce things. I want to do X with a given thing and you want to do Y with the same thing.

Because of such conflicts — and because we are able to communicate and argue with each other — we seek out norms of behavior with the purpose of avoiding these conflicts. The purpose of norms is conflict-avoidance. If we did not want to avoid conflicts, the search for norms of conduct would be senseless. We would simply fight and struggle.

Absent a perfect harmony of all interests, conflicts regarding scarce resources can only be avoided if all scarce resources are assigned as private, exclusive property to some specified individual. Only then can I act independently, with my own things, from you, with your own things, without you and me coming into conflict.

But who owns what scarce resource as his private property and who does not? First: Each person owns his physical body that only he and no one else controls directly (I can control your body only in-directly, by first directly controlling my body, and vice versa) and that only he directly controls also in particular when discussing and arguing the question at hand. Otherwise, if body-ownership were assigned to some indirect body-controller, conflict would become unavoidable as the direct body-controller cannot give up his direct control over his body as long as he is alive; and in particular, otherwise it would be impossible that any two persons, as the contenders in any property dispute, could ever argue and debate the question whose will is to prevail, since arguing and debating presupposes that both, the proponent and the opponent, have exclusive control over their respective bodies and so come to the correct judgment on their own, without a fight (in a conflict-free form of interaction).

And second, as for scarce resources that can be controlled only indirectly (that must be appropriated with our own nature-given, i.e., un-appropriated, body): Exclusive control (property) is acquired by and assigned to that person, who appropriated the resource in question first or who acquired it through voluntary (conflict-free) exchange from its previous owner. For only the first appropriator of a resource (and all later owners connected to him through a chain of voluntary exchanges) can possibly acquire and gain control over it without conflict, i.e., peacefully. Otherwise, if exclusive control is assigned instead to latecomers, conflict is not avoided but contrary to the very purpose of norms made unavoidable and permanent.

Let me emphasize that I consider this theory as essentially irrefutable, as a priori true. In my estimation this theory represents one of the greatest — if not the greatest — achievement of social thought. It formulates and codifies the immutable ground rules for all people, everywhere, who wish to live together in peace.

And yet: This theory does not tell us very much about real life. To be sure, it tells us that all actual societies, insofar as they are characterized by peaceful relations, adhere, whether consciously or subconsciously, to these rules and are thus guided by rational insight. But it does not tell us to what extent this is the case. Nor does it tell us, even if adherence to these rules were complete, how people actually live together. It does not tell us how close or distant from each other they live, if, when, how frequent and long, and for what purposes they meet and interact, etc. To use an analogy here: Knowing libertarian theory — the rules of peaceful interactions — is like knowing the rules of logic — the rules of correct thinking and reasoning. However, just like the knowledge of logic, as indispensable as it is for correct thinking, does not tell us anything about actual human thought, about actual words, concepts, arguments, inferences and conclusions used and made, so the logic of peaceful interaction (libertarianism) does not tell us anything about actual human life and action. Hence: just as every logician who wants to make good use of his knowledge must turn his attention to real thought and reasoning, so a libertarian theorist must turn his attention to the actions of real people. Instead of being a mere theorist, he must also become a sociologist and psychologist and take account of “empirical” social reality, i.e., the world as it really is.

 

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