September 8, 2014

The Foundations of Libertarianism, part 1

By In Articles, Philosophy

Republished and updated in lieu of part 2 being soon posted.

If there were no possibility of conflict between human beings, political theory would not be a necessary discussion.  The necessity of law and order arises from the fact that two or more individuals may have mutually exclusive wants.  It is the role of a theory of law and order to help us determine the solution to conflict in a world of scarce physical resources.  Resources are considered scarce because, in the words of Hans-Hermann Hoppe, the use of a given natural resource “by any one person for any one purpose… exclude[s] (or interfere[s] with or restrict[s]) its use by any other person or for any other purpose….”  But since there exists this scarcity of physical resources, the possibility of two or more individuals conflicting over their use also exists.  For the two individuals cannot, by definition, both use the resource.  How can this problem be solved?  There needs to be some consistent rule, some law, to provide an answer to this conflict and thus act as the foundation for order.  If there is no law, there is no wrongful action in society.  Order and civilization depend on a division between right and wrong action.

In his essay in honor of Austrian economist Hans Sennholz, festschrift editor John W. Robbins quoted Sennholz to say:

Both economic systems [capitalism and socialism] rest on the foundation of an ethical order that provides answers to questions such as: Why and when is an economic act called “good” or “bad,” “right” or “wrong”? What standard of conduct is acceptable and commendable or distasteful and repugnant? What is virtue in economic life?

The market order or capitalism finds its answers in the Judeo-Christian code of morality. Private ownership in production is squarely based on the Ten Commandments. It obviously rests on the Eighth Commandment: Thou shalt not steal. The private-ownership system also builds on the solid foundation of the Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not kill, which includes every form of coercion and violence…. To freely exchange goods and services, the contracting parties must not deceive each other. They must not bear false witness, which is the Ninth Commandment of the Decalogue.

Now, it is undoubtedly true that the Christian religion provides the fundamental basics for a free society in the above commands, which presuppose property rights.  But what constitutes theft?  Property rights are good, but more detail is needed.  After all, every social order has some idea of property rights.  Perhaps a given social order stipulates that the rulers in society are the owners of everything and to steal is to prevent them from utilizing everything in the society.  Or perhaps we take the Marxist syndicalist vision: where all is held in common and there is no private property.  But “property” does exist and it is a social wrong to seek to privatize it.

What we are attempting to determine is who has the proper authority to use, or govern the use of, the scarce resource.  The person who has this authority is considered the “owner” of the resource.  And any resource that has an owner is considered to be “property.”  The “property-owner” then has the exclusive right to use the resource as he sees fit.  This includes allowing others to temporarily use the resource on his behalf, for whatever function the owner agrees to.  A theory of property and property rights then is the foundation to order in society.  The laws, right and wrong action in society, reflect or depend on the rights of the property owners.  Every political theory then, from libertarianism to Marxism, has a theory of property ownership and property rights.

Thus, Stephen Kinsella, in a festschrift dedicated to Hans-Hermann Hoppe, writes:

“Protection of and respect for property rights [is not] unique to libertarianism.  What is distinctive about libertarianism is its particular property assignment rules –its view as to who is the owner of each contestable resource, and how to determine this.”

In other words, Sennholz and Robbins and the Christians defense of a free society must presuppose “particular property assignment rules” if it is to stipulate that theft is wrong. What constitutes theft?  That depends on the specific property rights. As Kinsella also writes:

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.

Individual rights, which are today divided into civil and economic rights, are actually just property rights.  Even justice, which means giving someone his due, depends on what what his property rights are.  Theft, murder, aggression, and coercion –even capitalism and socialism –are definable in terms of property.  It is the proper understanding of property which will help us determine answers to questions like: “do people have a right to healthcare?”

Now, the most important and basic type of property right is in the body.  We must surely start there.  The body is a physical tool, a scarce resource, in which we reside and can utilize to interact with the physical world and creation.  That is to say, I agree with Gordon H. Clark in his understanding that the nature of man is spiritual and he resides in his body.  Clark writes:

Man is not something in which somewhere God’s image can be found along with other things. Man is the image. This, of course, does not refer to man’s body. The body is an instrument or tool man uses. He himself is God’s breath, the spirit God breathed into the clay, the mind, the thinking ego. Therefore, man is rational in the likeness of God’s rationality.

And again:

When Paul said that he did not know whether he was in the body or out of the body, it seems that “he” is not the “body.” He can exist entirely separated from his body. 2 Corinthians 5 seems to say that the body is the clothes that a man wears. A man is not his clothes. Beyond this, everybody who dies exists entirely apart from a body in the so-called intermediate state. And again, Moses, the person, he himself, talked with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration centuries after his body had become mountain soil. Man is a unity because man is his mind or nous, His body belongs to him somewhat as tools belong to a carpenter.

The body, which was created by God, has been given to man on loan and it is his individual responsibility, and no other’s, to take care of it, to invest in it, to use it for the glory of God.  God did not give man control or ownership over the body that is occupied by another man, but only over the body in which the man presently dwells.  Since the body is given to the individual by God and to no one else, it is outside the rights of the individual to utilize his body to invade or aggress against the body of another individual.  Such an act is known today as battery.  To claim that one individual has the right over the use of the body of another individual is to declare that God’s decision to give every man one body is misguided.  Slavery is the product of an evil mind, a mind that is disposed against God Himself.  All individuals must be free from the initiation of force by another individual.

Notice that the above paragraph presupposed God.  The difference between the a priori ethics of Hans Hoppe and the Biblical ethics of the Reformed Libertarian is one of epistemological consideration.  For Hoppe, individual property ownership is the only possible tool to solve the possibility of conflict.  This is not necessarily bad, since the aim of a social order and of political theory is to seek to avoid the possibility of conflict, but this cannot show that conflict itself is bad.  Conflict may prevent the expansion of civilization and civilization may be thought to be a wonderful delight, but this cannot be used to show the transcendental nature of right and wrong.  Is not conflict desirable for those members of the State? Conflict is the precondition for the State’s role in society.  The State has an invested interested in not solving the problem of conflict. Hoppe’s arguments certainly do have a use and we should agree with Hoppe that individual property rights solve the most problems, but without God there is no justification for the claim that they are objectively and universally binding on all man in all circumstances.  God, after all, created all men and His law stands over every individual in the same way.

God’s thoughts are the ultimate standard and his written word are his exact thoughts.  As we move forward, it will be plain that concepts like “rights” and “property” are not justified by looking at nature.  If natural law is defined as the determination of right and wrong by learning from nature, as in the thought of Thomas Aquinas and Murray Rothbard, it must be rejected.  Although I enjoy the Rothbardian brand of libertarianism, especially as it is compared to the modern rise of utilitarianism and moral subjectivism, it is my opinion that his Thomism is not the preferable foundation. Hoppe, I think, is closer. But I desire a Christian construction.  Right and wrong must be sourced in propositional revelation based on the Bible.  And I take seriously Clark’s a priori and deductive epistemology, which will be utilized as well.

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