July 8, 2014

Troublesome Terms and Labels on the Libertarian Front

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

One problem with the political label of “libertarian” among conservative Christians at large is that it is the same as the word used to describe beliefs which Christians rightly reject.  One of these is the theory of the so-called “libertarian free will” in which the will of the human is neither bound nor influenced by any exterior factor, especially the sovereign will of God.  The second of these beliefs might be an ethical theory which teaches that there is not objective moral standard by which all people must act.  This libertarianism can be summarized: I can do whatever I want and there is no moral problem in doing so.

Thus, the conservative Christian is hesitant about accepting the political term “libertarian” because of his rejection of the others.  So then, it is always useful to keep this in mind when talking to Christians who are not on board the libertarian political stance.  They need to know that all libertarians are saying, or at least all libertarians should be saying, is that the basically accepted doctrine of individual property rights is taken to its logical conclusion; that a breach of those rights is unacceptable whether done by brother, co-worker, or government.  Now, rights for the libertarian are strictly negative. That is, no one has a legal claim to the property of another.  If someone did have the legal claim to the property of another, it would be a “positive right.”  Such “positive rights” are usually advocated in the form of “healthcare” and “education.”

Libertarianism in the political sense is simply an answer to the question: “under what conditions is the use of violence against the person or property of another legally permissible in society?”  There are generally two: 1) self defense and 2) as punishment for a crime; that is, punishment for the unjust initiation of force.  Historically in the United States and under the influence of the classical liberal tradition, it was the purpose of the government to specialize in the second condition.  And importantly, it was the right of the individual to use option one in any case wherein the government overstepped its specific role. (Today, any form of self defense against an overbearing government is seen as a number of things, including “extremism,” “rebelliousness,” or “resisting arrest.”)

Libertarianism as a political doctrine then, should be wholly uncontroversial.

Another label which cause trouble is the word “State.”  It is my well-repeated assertion that this word is used too loosely and with not enough care.  I understand that my insistence on the separation of government and state can be seen as unnecessary, but in mind it cannot be emphasized enough.  If the purpose of civil government is to play the role of punisher against the criminal, then an institution that systematically corrupts the law, distorts property rights, and institutionally and systematically monopolizes the activity of criminality –by stealing, murdering, and coercing the masses– cannot be said to be civil government.  Albert Jay Nock was famous for noting that the government protected against theft, fraud, and other forms of property rights breaches, while the State was an institution of plunder which sought to systemically expropriate all who were not part of the political class.  Contrary to Karl Marx’s bourgeois/proletariate class struggle, Nock’s understanding was that it was the political class who lived off of the rest.  The State (as differentiated from government), then, is the enemy of society, not the rich by virtue of their wealth alone.

It is for this reason that one can be “anti-state” while still desiring to uphold law and order, courts and contract.  It is also my stance that government should be funded in similar fashion as any other business: perhaps in a monthly $15 dollar charge or perhaps as part of a voluntary insurance package.  And of course, governments should compete for customers. Perhaps Jones’ Government Services can provide excellent services for only $12. This would be a mighty structural improvement over the trillion dollar deficit-financed crony operation that exists today.  In any case, I don’t know the market rate of these things, and neither does the US Federal Government, which clearly over charges and tells you to go vote for some other schmo if you aren’t happy.

Please see here and here for a discussion on the difference between government and state.

This of course brings up a third troublesome word: anarchism.  Anarchism has been used as a synonym for chaos and disorder. We can dismiss this definition immediately.  Firstly because this is a poorly applied etymological usage and secondly because few self-described anarchists are pushing for chaos. In fact, he may even point out that in our age of massive States around the world, chaos and disorder are at dangerous and deadly (literally) levels.  Another use of the term is that it advocates for a society without laws.  Again, this fails the etymology test and also the empirical test. Anarchists of the past either want strict property rights and zero State, or else they desire, as the syndicalists do, zero property rights and community governance.  Whether or not these options are viable or even just is besides the point that some sort of law is advocated.  And therefore anarchism cannot refer to a lawless society.

Now then, what does the word mean?  Etymologically, it means “without rulers.”  In the libertarian movement, especially in the Rothbardian tradition, it means “without the State.”  The trouble here is obvious. For not all who are rulers are necessarily part of the State.  If a ruler is 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 further, if 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, then it is essentially ruled by proper owners creating their rules and voluntary interacting with each other.  The number of rulers in this society is not zero, in fact, it is hundreds or thousands or however big the society is! Ironically then, it is democracy and every other State structure which limits the number of rulers.

Thus, it is my claim that anarchism is simply a poor word to describe the libertarian.  Perhaps the anti-statist wants to refer to himself as an anarchist. But if he believes in private property, the word itself is misleading.  And harmful. For those who have no clue what the libertarian anarchists are talking about, the word sounds immensely frightening.  It is for this reason that I do not refer to myself as an anarchist, preferring the term libertarian or propertarian.

Murray Rothbard was aware of these problems and at one time completely rejected the use of the term.  He should have kept up this opposition.

One more thing should be mentioned. Because many libertarians use the word anarchist to simply refer to their anti-state mentality (remember, anti-state does not mean anti-government), I should give you an example of an “anarchistic” society (under the libertarian use of the word which I previously rejected above) as a demonstration.  I will use the indispensable speech by Hoppe to guide my progression.

In the old, pre-monarchical Europe, the assumption was that a man’s property was rightfully his –and no other could claim it. But in the general course of things, there would arise the inevitable conflict over a given stretch of land or piece of property and the demand was formed for conflict-resolution and judges.  Who was to decide whether the present controller of the property or the individual disputing the controller’s ownership had the rightful claim?  Notice here, that the judges needed were not to “write law,” that is, they were not needed as legislatures and the creators of artificial law, but rather were “fact-finders” who heard the case and made decisions.  The idea of law-creation via a publicly controlled legislative body is a modern one, and it is a stain on civilization.  The demanded arbitrators were called upon to apply the generally accepted idea of property ownership and its deducible conclusions.  The fact that property ownership and rights are no longer accepted en masse, to the logical conclusions, is a result, I am convinced, of both the State takeover of education and “Big Government’s” effect on news.

In any case, the demand for arbitration was not satisfied by just any third party.  Like any industry, those who were specialists in the field were given the most attention.  As Hoppe states in his presentation, “Obviously, people will not just turn to anyone, because most people do not have the intellectual ability or the character necessary to make for a quality judge…. In order to settle their conflicts and to have the settlements lastingly recognized and respected by others, they will turn to what I call natural authorities or to members of the natural aristocracy.”  Those in society who had the intellectual capability of making difficult judgements, who were honest and fair, who were considered to make agreeable decisions, they became the recognized judges.  And soon, this natural aristocracy were referred to as “nobles” in society, and then “kings.”  But notice that these kings were not kings in the same tyrannical sense as the European monarchies which soon arose when the kings began to tax the people and demand that no other judges could exist within the kings’ jurisdiction.  They were “free-market” kings, rooted in the social and civil lives of the people.  They were kings without a State.

It was only later that the kings began to monopolize their kingdoms and tax the people and became owners of “States.”

The history is fascinating and much more can be found in Hoppe’s presentation. The point though is that even this situation of aristocracies and judges is technically “anarchy” in the libertarian sense of the word.  Government is consistent with the libertarian definition of anarchy.  Therefore, the non-anarchist should be aware of what is being advocated before dismissing the self-described “anarchist” libertarian as a proponent of lawlessness and chaos.  The non-anarchist should at least ask for the operating definition utilized by the self-described anarchist.  A conversation cannot meaningfully proceed otherwise.  Even the old aristocratic arrangement of judges and courts is Stateless, and therefore anarchical under the previously rejected meaning of the word.  At any rate, I don’t apply the word to myself and think it misleading and ultimately harmful to the libertarian vision.  I think that the word anarchy should refer to its etymology: a society without rulers.  In which case the property-rights advocate categorically cannot be an anarchist because property owners make the rules for their property and are therefore rulers.  And a propertarian society is made up of property owners and their various rules (i.e. “don’t come on to my property unless you’re wearing shoes).

Finally, the fact remains that God has placed non-property owning rulers over us and we should be arranged under them. That is, while the present systems of government, and as far as I can predict most future systems of government as well, are not consistent with the basic property rights espoused by libertarianism, we should humbly submit. For while they may contradict the prescriptive will of God, they do not contradict the decretive will of God. Romans 13 says this.

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