March 28, 2015

Libertarianism as Propertarianism

By In Articles, Philosophy, Political Theory

If one claims that the chief goal of libertarianism is to make liberty the the most important aspect of a political theory, not much has been said until we define what we mean when we say “liberty.”  When Mises biographer and Hoppe festschrift editor Jorg Guido Hulsmann spoke at Mises Brazil on “Liberty, Social Order, and Neoliberalism,” he noted that the definition of liberty on which he was operating was “not the definition of liberty that we find very often in textbooks and the discussions in the media and school, which says something like: ‘I’m free to the extent that I can do whatever I wish.’ [Which is] freedom in the absence of any obstacles.”

Immediately we discover that if libertarianism seeks to promote liberty as its fundamental cause, there are various types of libertarianism based simply on the fact that liberty itself has a multitude of meanings.  You’ll notice that even a Marxist might say that the proletariate desires liberty from the caricature of the evil Capitalist that the movements founder created more than a century ago.  Of course, we ought to mention that the issue of multiple meanings is relevant to every other ideology and political theory that exists. Our focus is libertarianism.

Hulsmann stated that the type of libertarianism that he advocated was the specific strain of libertarianism that placed property at the front and center of the very meaning of liberty.  In the tradition of libertarianism that encompasses Hoppe, Rothbard, and Mises, Guido Hulsmann noted that one might refer to this libertarianism as “Austro-Libertarianism,” due to its modern influence of the Austrian School of economics, which emphatically opposed empiricism in its base epistemological methodology, stressed the subjective valuations of the individual, and focused its analysis on the individual human action.  Hulsmann gives a rough meaning of the Austro-libertarian understanding of liberty as follows:

Human beings are free to the extent that they freely dispose of their own body and freely dispose of the things that they acquire through their own body.  They are the first users, the first transformers, of things that they find in nature.

We will touch more on this below.  But he also notes we ought to reject the “freedom in absence of obstacles” understanding of liberty, thereby effectively eliminating any possible accusation that his type of libertarianism should be confused with “libertinism.” Hulsmann declares that “liberty can never mean the absence of any obstacles; this is the sort of liberty that… [only] God can have.”  Liberty with obstacles, at first glance by those who are not familiar with libertarianism, does not seem very libertarian.  But this is only so because they often have an understanding of liberty that does not adequately appreciate and give reference to property.  It is vital though that we not only emphasize property, but also that we have a proper understanding of its nature. As Stephen Kinsella wrote in his essay “What Libertarianism Is,” which is included in Hoppe’s festschrift:

…[I]ndividual rights, justice, and aggression collapse into property rights.  As Murray Rothbard explained, individual rights are property rights.  And justice is just giving someone his due, which depends on what his [property] rights are.

The non-aggression principle is also dependent on property rights, since what aggression is depends on what our (property) rights are.  If you hit me, it is aggression because I have a property right in my body.  If I take from you the apple you possess, this is trespass, aggression, only because you own the apple.  One cannot identify an act of aggression [or a crime] without implicitly assigning a corresponding right to the victim.

Now, it is true that our understanding of libertarianism, perhaps best referred to as “Austro-libertarianism,” emphasizes the central role of property.  But this is only half the point, for all other ideologies have some idea of property rights as well.  “After all,” says Kinsella, “a property right is simply the exclusive right to control a scarce resource [emphasis in original –TRL Editor].  Property rights specify which persons own [see my post on the word “own” here–TRL Editor] –have the right to control– various scarce resources in a given region or jurisdiction.  [E]very political theory advances some theory of property.”  In socialism, “if the state nationalizes an industry, it is asserting ownership of these means of production.”  What makes libertarianism unique then, “is its particular property assignment rules –its view as to who the owner of each contestable resource, and how to determine this.”

Kinsella proceeds through his essay (which is important reading for the diehard libertarian theorists out there) to discuss what it means to have property in your own body, property in things outside your body, and the rise of conflict within society as more than one proeprty-rights claim to a single scarce resource.

If liberty is without obstacles than a libertarian society has no ability to press charges against the criminality of the thief.  For to do so would be to interfere with the liberty of the thief to “do whatever he wishes.”  But the importance of the Austro-Libertarian vision is that private property sets the boundaries, that is, the obstacles, for what is legally permissible in society.  The transfer of a carton of eggs from a store owner to an egg-lover (such as myself, as my morning omelette testifies) must be preceded by the permission of the store owner, who currently owns (is in exclusive control of) the carton of eggs.  There are two ways that I can get those eggs: First, by permission of the store owner, which usually comes at some sort of price, as the store owner wishes to profit; and second, by taking the eggs without his permission, which is considered to be theft.  It is the existence of private property rights which determines the legality of the means of ownership transfer. An act of theft is an illegitimate effort toward ownership transfer because by definition, the store owner has exclusive control over the eggs and thus has the present and legal authority to set the terms and conditions for their use. Thus, an act of theft makes the store owner a victim and myself a criminal.

It is here that we are able to revisit Hulsmann’s definition of liberty and advocate a specific word that describes our strain of libertarianism; namely “Propertarianism.”  Propertarianism is used to express the idea that the social order, “legal rights,” aggression and coercion, and freedom itself can be stated in terms of property ownership.  The term “Libertarianism” is better clarified by utilizing this word, which can be used to help describe the “Austro-libertarian” tradition of Mises, Rothbard, and Hoppe. Hulsmann stated that in society,

Human beings are free to the extent that they freely dispose of their own body and freely dispose of the things that they acquire through their own body.  They are the first users, the first transformers, of things that they find in nature.

Liberty and freedom in civil society are defined by the ability to legally exercise one’s own property in whichever way does not commit aggression against the property of another individual.  A Propertarian society is one in which all goods and services, all land and labor, and all decision making authority is identified in terms of private property ownership.  As I have stated in another post, “…the ideal libertarian society can be described as a “Propertarian” society, that is, a society made up only of privately-owned property as opposed to “public” property.”  If a ruler is defined as one who has the legal claim to setting the “rules” of a given jurisdiction, then logically the property owner is a ruler over all that he owns.  And no State can claim ownership over the property-owner’s kingdom.

The label “propertarian” has been used mostly by those libertarians who reject the egalitarian influences of the leftist-libertarians.  And I hope to see it around more on this site as well.  For more, see my post here, and scroll to the section titled “The Implications of Private Property”

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com