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Can Libertarians Have Communal Property?

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A strange caricature of the laissez-faire liberal (i.e., libertarian) ideology persists. Namely, that libertarians are all required to pursue an individualistic lifestyle in which each person lives on his or her own with few social or economic connections with others. 

This stereotype has been perpetuated for decades by both conservatives and leftwing social democrats looking for a good straw man with which to beat up the more libertarian-minded among them. Recently, for example, Pope Francis singled out the laissez-faire liberal ideology for an attack claiming that liberals (whom he imprecisely calls "neoliberals") are incapable of forming a real community because they shun the idea of anything being done as a communal activity. Specifically, according to Francis, liberalism shuns the idea of doing anything in common because "'common' implies the constriction of at least some individuals." Moreover, this ideology "minimizes the common good ... in the community framework."

If this is true, then these liberals Francis (and a host of other social democratic critics of liberalism) describe, are incapable of living in communities that have any sense of common goals or shared values. 

This has never been true, of course, and we find in a recent article titled "Must Libertarians be Individualists?," there is no conflict at all between liberalism and communal living

It is entirely consistent with the ideas of liberalism to live in a large extended family, to join a commune, or live in a densely-populated urban setting with others. All that liberals ask is that the decision to live a certain way is made voluntarily and without being coerced. A person commits no illiberal act when he gives away all his possessions to live in a monastery shared with others. There is nothing contrary to liberalism in offering free room and board to strangers or family members. There is no group or individual activity that is verboten by liberalism so long as the participants are cooperating freely. 

"Sure," some critics might say. "Some people might engage in these rare activities like living in a monastery, but these libertarian types are always opposed to any larger application of the theory beyond a tiny commune or family compound." 

What a Totally Voluntary Community Could Look Like

And yet, there is nothing, ideologically speaking, that prevents liberals from building a voluntary community and applying it on a larger scale — perhaps even at the level of an entire city or metropolitan area. At a large scale, we begin to run into problems of monopoly power and practical impediments to exercising choice between the voluntary communities. (For more, see here, here, and here.)

But let's say we wanted to build a voluntary community that could grow and develop over time. What would it look like at its most basic level? 

As a starting place, we can look to the "covenant community" model used by Hans-Hermann Hoppe which he describes what a totally privatized community could look like

All land is privately owned, including all streets, rivers, airports, and harbors. With respect to some pieces of land, the property title may be unrestricted; that is, the owner is permitted to do whatever he pleases with his property as long as he does not physically damage the property of others. With respect to other territories, the property title may be more or less restricted. As is currently the case in some housing developments, the owner may be bound by contractual limitations on what he can do with his property (restrictive covenants, voluntary zoning), which might include residential rather than commercial use [and] no buildings more than four stories high.

And how do such communities form? They can come into being simply when a group of individuals agree to put limitations on their own use of their own property in order to pursue common goals. Hoppe continues: 

You and I, private property owners, may enter and put our property into a restrictive (or protective) covenant. We and others may, if we both deem it beneficial, impose limitations on the future use that each of us is permitted to make with our property. 

As noted by Hoppe, we already see this all the time in "some housing developments." People who voluntarily enter into these types of arrangements — i.e., condominium associations, apartment co-ops, and single-family housing covenants — voluntarily restrict what sorts of activities they may engage in inside and around their homes. For instance, there's good reason to believe that virtually all community covenants in this scenario would prohibit a resident from performing hazardous scientific experiments, cooking meth, or building nuclear bombs inside his home. Owners voluntary submit to restrictions as to what color they can paint their homes, or what sorts of vehicles they can park in the driveway. 

And, as with condominium communities, the residents voluntarily pay fees and dues that build and maintain communally-owned areas such as sidewalks, hallways, swimming pools, and other facilities that are not owned by any single member of the community. No single member of the community can use those facilities however he wants. A member of the group can only use the common areas in a way that has been permitted by the group as a whole.

RELATED: "Conceived in Liberty: The Medieval Communes of Europe" by Guglielmo Piombini

In other words, individual members and households voluntarily limit their own use of property for what we might call "the common good." 

Expanding Beyond Housing

There is no theoretical, ideological, or even practical reason why a community such as this could not be expanded well beyond the limitations of a housing development. (Obviously, in our modern world, many legal obstacles prevent this from happening.) Using this model, however, covenant communities could expand to include commercial real estate such as office buildings, retail shops, and even industrial operations such as a pharmaceutical factory. 

A community such as this would also then need to provide transportation infrastructure so goods can move in and out of the community — which all members would pay fees to maintain. Residents might demand security personnel to patrol the streets, and parks to visit on weekends. 

Moreover, we see that a totally-privately-owned community does not run contrary to notions of the "common good." For the members of the community, having clean and functional amenities such as recreation facilities and streets are seen to be in the interest of the common good. Having security personnel that serves the entire community is seen as being part of the common good.

Some of these organizations may even organize themselves along "democratic" lines. Just as joint stock companies have elections and elected officers, so too can covenant communities. Depending on the rules and by-laws of the communities, majorities or supermajorities can be used to determine new regulation, new fees, and general governance — just as many private clubs do. 

RELATED: "We Need Less Politics and More Private Governance" by Edward Stringham

"But what about those who are in the minority?" some critics might then complain, "aren't they being coerced if the vote doesn't go their way? Those who vote with the minority in such cases are no more being "coerced" than are stockholders who vote with the losing side at a stockholders meeting. Nor is there any "socialism" provided membership in the community is voluntary. Those owners who feel the organization is being badly run can sell their ownership stake and leave, just as any member of a homeowners association is free to do. Or, members can convince other members to join them in changing policies to better suit their preferences. 

And, we might also note that purchasing land in a community like this need not be the only way to become full members of the community. Many membership models could be employed. Existing members could sponsor outside households for membership, pending the approval of the other members. Anyone with specific skills would also likely obtain inclusion as members with relative ease.

Critics of the voluntary model at this point may still complain that such a society will not give sufficient attention to the poor and destitute. What about people who have no skills? Never mind, apparently, that the modern state-based system around the world has plenty of poor and destitute persons as well. (Thanks to industrialization, trade, and modern markets, poverty is declining worldwide — no thanks to states.) Nevertheless, how do we address the issue of those who cannot even take care of their daily needs unassisted? 

Just as covenant communities can provide security services, streets, and parks, community residents might also demand some amenities we consider to be characteristic of a "welfare state." Perhaps motivated by both religious beliefs and practical concerns, members want a widows-and-orphans fund designed for temporary relief of owner residents who experience a financially debilitating death in the household. Perhaps residents want to ensure that their own children are surrounded by other educated children, and thus residents demand community schools. Perhaps members of the community feel that the presence of a safety net reduces crime. Or they may conclude that it is important to minimize the comings and going of members — and thus a widows-and-orphans fund promotes stability. Or they may simply think that having a shelter for victims of domestic abuse in the community simply makes for a better community. They want it all funded out of the community treasury, just as the roads and the parks are funded. 

Whether or not these services end up being funded by the community's members depend on whether or not a sufficient number of members value them as important to the community. Once accepted by the membership, it is only a matter of time until the community's rules are changed to reflect the values of the members. Naturally, those who find themselves in disagreement over these policies — as with policies over trash collection or sidewalk maintenance — are free to leave. 

Whether or not it is financially wise or prudent to provide these services is a matter for the realms of accounting and economics. If the members of the group conclude they obtain psychic profit from funding schools for all children in the community, it is difficult to say that such services are "wasteful." These questions, however, are a separate question from whether or not a voluntary covenant community can provide them without violating the property rights of members. So long as the services are approved in a manner in line with the rules and by-laws already agreed to by all members, the services are not in violation of anyone's rights. 

Practical Limitations on What Covenant Communities Can Do

A major difference between covenant communities and states, of course, is that covenant communities such as these are unlikely to provide open-ended non-means-tested welfare programs such as large states like the US do today. The communities we imagine here simply could not afford to do so since such programs require constantly expanding coercive tax collection, and inflationary currency. Covenant communities would be unable to simply print new money at will as modern central banks do, and just hope it all works out in the end. Covenant communities would need to be frugal, responsive, and able to continue to provide quality amenities to members in order to avoid quickly becoming insolvent. They cannot simply raise taxes at will without losing their most productive residents. But, for a prosperous industrialized society that is growing wealthier, the percentage of overall wealth generated that would be necessary to provide basic provisions for the poor would become smaller and smaller over time. 

Nevertheless, contrary to what many critics of laissez-faire liberalism claim, there are no ideological barriers to liberals and other advocates for private property engaging in behavior that encourages collective action, and community directed resources. Many communities do this already for specific purposes, and, philosophically speaking, there is no limit to what these communities can do provided they remain voluntary in nature. 


Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is executive editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy, finance, and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.

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