Home/Daniel McCarthy/Liberty Isn’t Just Property—So What Is It?

Liberty Isn’t Just Property—So What Is It?

Matt Zwolinski of the Bleeding Heart Libertarian blog suggests that his fellow libertarians abandon the “non-aggression principle,” as least as formulated by the late Murray Rothbard. David Gordon finds Zwolinski’s characterization of Rothbard’s position something of a caricature: “Rothbardian libertarianism is not the doctrine that each person is an absolute despot over his own property,” says David. “Neither is it the case that you are free to violate people’s rights, so long as you do so on your property.”

The question that immediately arises, though, is just what are “people’s rights” other than property rights? Libertarians who follow Rothbard subscribe to a doctrine of “self-ownership,” which they mean quite literally: you own yourself in much the same way as you own other property, except that you cannot alienate your own will. (This is why most Rothbardians don’t believe you can sell yourself into slavery: you can’t give up your volition and become in effect a robot subject entirely to someone else.)

Self-ownership means you have a property right that must be respected even when you’re standing on someone else’s land. Indeed, even a trespasser, in Rothbard’s ideal, cannot be assaulted, robbed, or killed—and he can only be removed from one’s property with the minimum necessary force. So that’s one thing David probably means by “people’s rights” on “your property.”

The trouble is, that might be the only thing a follower of Rothbard means. Rothbard was an anarcho-capitalist, and in general his disciples envision a world in which all land is privately owned: Disneyland or a shopping mall is sometimes invoked as a practical illustration of what a fully privatized, property-based community might look like. Gated communities are another example.

In each case, the sharply constrained character of “liberty” should be obvious. There’s no free speech in a shopping mall—vendors are not obliged to let you loudly criticize their wares on the premises—and employees in Disneyland must adopt the “Disney Look.” Gated communities impose all kinds of restrictions on their members. The regulations one encounters in all these places may be good or bad, but they don’t match up with what most of us conventionally think of as freedom. And the rules are set by one class of people, the property owners.

There are, to be sure, at least two ways in which persons without property in anything other than themselves—proletarians, as they were once called—can still exert power even in this model. First, their natural talents will make them valuable potential employees, and that gives them some negotiating leverage with owners. And second, in aggregate the preferences of the proletarians make up the demand side of the market, or most of it, and “consumer sovereignty” can be quite real, leading land lords and the owners of capital to serve rather than rule. You wind up with as much freedom as you can earn and as much as the consumers’ side of the market demands.

But that still may not be very much. What tends to happen in these arrangements is that the proletarians begin to demand a share in management. This is the paradigm from which both democracy and socialism arise. The one comes from the demands of the governed for a role in government, the other from the demand of labor for a role in management, and the two are quite closely related: “management” and “government” feel like much the same thing to those who are subject to rules they don’t make themselves. (Government can mean ecclesiastical government as well: Protestantism is in essence precisely the demand by the governed laity for the right to govern the church themselves, without an institutionally fixed hierarchy.)

Property-rights libertarianism frames itself as an answer to political coercion. The state kills and taxes and commands, activities that would be criminal if carried out by any other institution. Abolishing the state doesn’t mean the end of those behaviors, but it does mean that no institution would have moral license to engage in them. The same standards would apply to everyone—in theory, that is. In practice, people with hard property would in fact have the power to command and to collect rent and, at the extreme, to kill in defense of their property, much as the state claims to kill only for defensive purposes.

The social pattern that libertarians see as the abolition of licensed coercion looks very different from another angle—it looks as if all political rights of citizens against the claims of property owners (including the claims of property owners to, say, tell their employees what to wear) have been abolished, and all management power, presently divided between the state and private property, now attaches to private property and its owners’ wishes.

Employees in Disneyland may not be allowed to congregate to petition for a redress of their grievances against management, but within a state those employees are also citizens, and citizens can assemble on public property to criticize private or state institutions. No business is required to let you exercise “free speech” on its premises, but citizens have won the right to speak freely on public property. Arguably, free speech is a concept that only makes sense outside of a purely property-based system—free speech has to be speech somewhere, someplace under an authority that chooses to grant freedom of expression. Discussion is integral to the idea of a republic in a way that it is not integral to the idea of Disneyland or a shopping mall. In practice, of course, a state may or may allow free speech, just as a private property owner might or might not. But in theory, public space seems more conduce than private space to what we think of as free speech.

In a purely propertarian system, the limits of what is permissible, in speech or anything else, are set according to the principle of ownership and the will of the owners. In a totalitarian state system, or even a strongly authoritarian one, the limits of what is permissible are set solely by the government. Neither of these situations, however—that of pure property power or pure state power—is normal in the modern Western experience, however. Instead, a system that includes both private property and public institutions is the context in which our ideas of liberty have formed. This kind of liberty is polycentric rather than monopolistic. The private realm has some privileges against the state, but the power to manage or govern isn’t distributed entirely based on property. That power to manage the managers is partly invested in the state, and management of the state itself may be invested in the people at large (democracy) or some limited noncommercial class (aristocracy) or even, in part, in religious authorities (in the case of established churches, for example).

This polycentric liberty seems to me more capacious than either a liberty based entirely on the private-property principle or one based entirely on government fiat—the latter, of course, is the “freedom” of the Soviet Union.

I’m skeptical that anything good would come of investing all managing power (or governing power) in property holders, who already by definition have some advantage over other people—namely, the advantage of property or, at a more conceptual level, accumulated capital. Worse outcomes would arise from investing all power in the state. But by keeping powers divided among different principles of authority, one preserves several possible ways of life and several avenues of protest and redress should injustice be perpetrated by either the public or private sector. Property limits the power of the state, and the state limits the power of property. Mixture and balance is what preserves liberty as we know it.

There is, it must be said, another kind of danger besides an institutional monopoly on power. “Public opinion,” expressed through the market by way of consumer sovereignty and through politics by way of elections and polling, can also constrain the ways one can live or even think. The political and market dimensions of public opinion, what’s more, can reinforce one another. One advantage to having an established church, even for those who are not members, is that it preserves a public voice other than that of the masses, whether expressed on the market or politics or both. The mixture and balance that a well-ordered polity needs has many layers beyond the private-public or property-politics distinction. The masses-individual distinction is also important, if harder to express.

All of this is a hunch as to why a private-property-based Rothbardian system would not very closely resemble the freedom we’ve known. It might be strictly libertarian, but it could, like Disneyland, be very illiberal at the same time. None of this is to deny the bloodiness that tends to characterize actual states, but in terms of models, property without politics leaves something to be desired.

about the author

Daniel McCarthy is editor at large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, Modern Age, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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