Liberty as a Result of Just Rights
Liberty as a Result of Just Rights
There is an implicit divide between two constructions of libertarianism. On one hand, there are those that conceive of liberty as flowing from justice. On the other, justice flows from liberty.
There are many ways to distinguish between types of libertarians: thick vs thin, left vs. “plumbline,” utilitarian vs. deontological, anarchistic vs. minarchistic, etc. Each of these distinctions are helpful from time to time, none of them being “ultimate,” or at least, a full taxonomy would require pages of nuance and careful deconstruction; something that perhaps one day I’d like to take on.
One particular distinction that has come to light recently (but which has long been there of course), in the context of Alabama’s abortion bill, is whether libertarianism is chiefly about the ability for human beings to “make their own choices.” Indeed, close friend and supporter of this site, Clark Davis, commented in an especially erudite manner to a thread of comments on the Libertarian Party of Alabama’s Facebook page (naturally, the AL LP came out against the bill– big shock):
Libertarianism has nothing to do with being able to CHOOSE to do whatever you want. It’s about not initiating aggression against another human or another human’s property. The argument surrounding abortion, for the libertarian, is whether or not a fertilized egg is a human, thus having by nature negative property rights, or not. Many people believe, whether for religious or secular reasons, that a fertilized egg is a human being. Libertarianism is what it is. What people disagree on is whether a fertilized egg falls under the scope of humanity and the rights we are afforded by God/nature.
In response, someone posted a screenshot as a rebuttal. The screenshot was a result of Googling the definition of libertarianism. The search results gave this summary at the top (pulled from Wiki):
Libertarianism is a collection of political philosophies and movements that uphold liberty as a core principle. Libertarians seek to maximize political freedom and autonomy, emphasizing freedom of choice, voluntary association, and individual judgment.
The problem here is twofold: as I’ve stated on numerous occasions, libertarianism is not distinct in that it makes “choice” and “liberty” the features of its philosophy. Rather, it is distinct in its definition of liberty and the conditions and restraints under which choices are to be allowed. For those still coming to terms with the doctrines of libertarianism, the idea that there are restraints on choices seems to contradict the entire spirit of libertarianism. But in response, it can immediately be pointed out that libertarianism denies individuals the legal ability to aggress against the person or property of others, and therefore, categorizes the state itself as a deviation from this very stipulation.
And further, the entire impetus of the modern socialist movement is to make the world more free (in accordance with their definitions and frameworks) for the individual. Indeed, they believe that a socialist arrangement is the means by which man is given an array of additional choices and allows him to flourish. Thus, the maximization of these things for us libertarians, must be a result of our interest in something more core, more fundamental.
This is because libertarianism’s conception of liberty is that it flows, and is defined by, what is just. In Murray Rothbard’s essay “Why Be Libertarian?” he wrote:
It is our view that a flourishing libertarian movement, a lifelong dedication to liberty can only be grounded on a passion for justice. Here must be the mainspring of our drive, the armor that will sustain us in all the storms ahead, not the search for a quick buck, the playing of intellectual games or the cool calculation of general economic gains. And, to have a passion for justice, one must have a theory of what justice and injustice are — in short, a set of ethical principles of justice and injustice, which cannot be provided by utilitarian economics.
I think that Stephen Kinsella said it best when he wrote in the festschrift to Hans-Hermann Hoppe that
What is distinctive about libertarianism is its particular property assignment rules: its view concerning who is the owner of each contestable resource, and how to determine this.
Thus, the legal ability that individuals have to make choices, to determine their course of life, to employ their resources in the way they see fit, are results and derivations from the more fundamental principle that individuals are not allowed to initiate the forceful prevention of those choices. Liberty, then, flows from a theory of justice. Liberty is the result that we get, it is the conclusion reached, when we apply our theory of justice and rights.
The problem with the Google-returned summary of libertarianism is that it doesn’t properly speak to the problem at hand. It focuses on one of the resulting features of libertarianism, rather than the definition itself. What we need in the libertarian world is a recognition of the importance of the word libertarianism’s reconstruction. We must be ever-vigilant to define the term carefully and specifically.
Thus, in addition to the various distinctions at the beginning of this short post, the distinction here is between libertarians who consider liberty and “freedom to choose” to be the outflow or necessitation of a certain formulation of just rights on one side, and those who consider “freedom to choose” as the core itself, from which rights flow.
While the latter is more popular, and indeed characterizes mainstream libertarianism more accurately than the former (Rothbardian/Hoppean) branch, it begins to break apart as it fails to confront anti-property rights challenges from the left generally, and even the state specifically. This is because it fails to account for the fact that libertarianism simply as “the ability to choose” does not solve the primary problem that socio-legal norms are intended to overcome; namely, what Hoppe terms “conflict avoidance.” If libertarianism is defined as men being able to do what they want, the doctrine’s ability to deal with conflict between the competing desires of individuals requires later amendment, or an exception to the rule.
But if the former, Rothbardian-Hoppean thesis is taken, then liberty itself is a simple result from the demands of property assignment rules. This is what is meant by natural rights as being “negative” (or existing because of what people are not allowed to do to others).
Libertarianism is the ethical theory that no man may initiate aggression against another man or, derivatively, the property that he holds title to. Liberty flows from, and is constrained by, the logic of this proposition. It is the task of political philosopher to then apply this in the context of the fetus who lives inside his mother’s womb.
About the author
C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Austro Libertarian. He has written for Mises.org, LRC, David Stockman, and others. He owns several consulting business and actively works on the magazine, for Tom Woods, and lives in Northern CA.