Libertarian Liberty: the Crucial Philosophical Problem and its New Paradigm Solution
This is a brief explanation of the main philosophical problem with libertarian liberty, and then of the solution to that problem. This is because there is considerable confusion among libertarians generally about the problem although there is even more confusion about the suggested solution, where it has been noticed at all. There is a parallel here with the problem of epistemological justification and the critical-rationalist solution. Moreover, the issues here do not appear to be of less philosophical, practical, or moral importance.
The crucial philosophical problem with libertarian liberty
The problem can be explained as follows. Some kinds of property are assumed to be compatible with interpersonal liberty: e.g., self-ownership, initial acquisition by use, acquisition by trade, etc. Other kinds of property are assumed to be incompatible with interpersonal liberty: e.g., slavery by seizure, acquisition by conquest, acquisition by theft and fraud, etc.). How are the different kinds of property being distinguished as libertarian or not libertarian? It cannot be because certain kinds of property are merely defined, whether explicitly or tacitly, as compatible with the mere word ‘liberty’: for words, as such, are of little or no importance. It must be because they are thought to be factually compatible or incompatible with real liberty: for the word ‘liberty’ refers to real phenomena in the world just as much as does the word ‘light’. But libertarians usually have no explicit theory of what such liberty is. So they must have a tacit theory of liberty. And that tacit theory has to be independent of ‘property’ (in a de facto, non-moral, and non-legal sense, of ‘exclusive resource-control’). Otherwise, we could not explain why one kind of property is compatible with liberty while another kind is not. There would be no real libertarian liberty; there would be only different forms of property. And libertarians would be deluded in thinking that liberty, as such, could be genuinely increased or reduced. They would really be referring to property that promotes utility in some way, or maybe promotes something else entirely. But that does not seem to be correct. So it looks as though there must be a tacit theory of pre-propertarian liberty. And if there is such a tacit theory, then it ought to be possible—and should be enlightening—to make this tacit theory explicit.
So what must libertarians be referring to by ‘liberty’? What most of them explicitly say they mean does not make complete sense, where they have any explicit theory at all. For instance, Robert Nozick has no explicit theory of liberty in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia. And some self-identified libertarians take something like Hobbesian freedom of action to be the libertarian sense. But this cannot be right, because that is a zero-sum view that people must compete over rather than one which can be either protected or increased for everyone. Less-confused libertarians rightly opt for something more like the Rothbardian conception of liberty, of not being aggressed against by other people. But when they try to make this sense explicit they run into problems. A first thing to note is that very few focus on liberty directly. Instead, they write about being against (initiated) coercion or aggression as the implied opposite of liberty, without explaining exactly how these are theoretically related to liberty.
“Coercion” fails completely and obviously. For “coercion” is, in plain English, the use or threat of force against people in order to obtain their compliance. And thus (initiated) coercion is neither necessary nor sufficient to make an action infringe liberty as libertarians understand it in practice. For some liberty-flouting acts do not involve (initiated) force or the threat of force against people: for instance, fraud is not coercive, and theft is usually surreptitious rather than coercive. And some (initiated) coercion is used to defend against or rectify acts that flout liberty: for instance, policing and law enforcement insofar as they are libertarian. In recent years, however, (initiated) “coercion” has increasingly been dropped as the one, or main, thing that libertarians are against.
What about “aggression”? There seems to be no similar inherent problem with saying that libertarians are against aggression (however, there are non-libertarian senses of “aggression” that must be kept distinct from the libertarian sense: such as “aggression” as the word is used in sport or in animal behaviour). The problem occurs when libertarians try to explain “aggression.” For they then typically do so in terms of acts that flout legitimate property rights. There are really four mistakes in one here. First, as it stands, this view is compatible with every system of property: they are all perceived as “legitimate” from within themselves. Second, to some extent it appears to be circular: to simplify somewhat, aggression is flouting legitimate property and legitimate property is what is acquired without using aggression (and throwing self-ownership, “homesteading,” and “labour-mingling” into the mix does not help). Third, there is a conflation of the factual and objective with the moral and legal: for it ought to be possible to say what libertarian liberty is—in theory and practice—without at the same time insisting that it is by its very nature “legitimate.” Fourth, there is no independent theory of libertarian liberty from which it is possible to deduce what kinds of property are libertarian (whether or not they are “legitimate”).
The solution to the crucial problem
The fundamental sense of “liberty” (or “freedom”) that libertarianism implies is too abstract to be explained in terms of property—even self-ownership—first and foremost. That is why problems and paradoxes arise when this is attempted, and standard putative solutions to them are, albeit unwittingly, fudged rather than sound. A pre-propertarian theory of libertarian liberty is possible and required.
Liberty is always about the absence of some sort of constraint. And libertarian liberty is interpersonal or social: the absence of constraints initiated on people by other people. Such initiated constraints are, very broadly speaking, “aggressive” (rather than defensive or restitutional, which are thereby not initiated but reactive). It seems clearer, more neutral, and more precise to refer to these initiated constraints as “proactive impositions.” It also seems clearer to theorise the ultimate nature of those impositions as a subjective “cost” (a preference utility lowering) to the victim (or recipient), in the sense of being the opposite of a benefit (a preference utility raising) and of flouting his spontaneous preferences (not preferences he has been coerced or defrauded into having). Thus abstract libertarian liberty itself can be formulated as “the absence of interpersonal proactively imposed costs” (or, for short, “no proactive impositions”, or just “no impositions”—but the full formulation is always implied, of course). And where such proactively imposed costs clash (so that some are, in practice, unavoidable: for instance, you must suffer the noise of your neighbour’s singing practice or he must cease to practice singing at home), then the libertarian policy must be to minimize such costs overall. This applies to defence and restitution too: to go beyond what is necessary or proportionate to achieve these (even if the only alternative is to suffer the imposition) is to initiate a new imposed cost: e.g., shooting a mere trespasser or forcing him to pay extortionate compensation. And yet, all that said, the precise form of words is not at all what is important. What is important is the general idea that it must be possible to render the tacit, pre-propertarian, non-moral, theory of libertarian liberty explicit in some form of words. To fail to understand this is to lack philosophical sophistication in the same way as the failure to understand critical rationalism. But once this is understood, anyone can attempt a different explicit version.
Without going into details and qualifications, this pre-propertarian and non-moral theory has two crucial, general, implications when it is applied to the normal human situation. Self-ownership is in practice entailed: for it minimizes proactive impositions for people to exclusively control—de facto own—themselves (it is a gross proactive imposition on me—as a conscious being—for you to enslave me, but a relatively negligible one on you to disallow my enslavement by you; especially as you are thereby similarly protected). Private property is in practice entailed: for it minimizes proactive impositions for people to have exclusive control over—de facto own—what resources they can acquire when they are not thereby, significantly, imposing on others (it is a gross proactive imposition on me for you to interfere with such resources as I have thus acquired, but a relatively negligible one on you to disallow that interference; especially as you are thereby similarly protected). That people must have such ‘property’ (de facto exclusive control) is a mere logical implication of applying such liberty to the world as it usually is: this is to say nothing about morals, or law, or social institutions. However, some people will insist that all “property” or “ownership” is inherently moral, or legal, or social, and say that they can make no sense of “de facto ownership”. For them, the implication can stop at “exclusive control”. It is sufficient to solve the philosophical problem that applying this theory of liberty normally entails exclusive control of one’s own body and of material things (when not acquired by, or causing, proactive impositions). But de facto “property” will be meant and used in what follows.
Consequently, as a very good rule of thumb, we can usually see what the practical observance of interpersonal liberty entails simply by reference to such self-ownership and such private property. Hence arises both the typical libertarian correct intuition that self-ownership and (non-imposing) private property exemplify liberty and the incorrect intuition that they are liberty itself. However, now when philosophically challenged or when problem cases arise, there is an abstract theory that explains what is libertarian and why without falling into the sorts of errors previously explained. But this should only be done when necessary. It would be absurd to approach every issue that might arise by immediately resorting to the abstract theory of liberty. The presumptions of self-ownership and (non-imposing) private property are practical rules that are libertarian (and analogous with the rules of rule utilitarianism). It is unnecessary and impractical to approach every single matter with the abstract theory alone (that would be analogous with a utilitarian always using only act utilitarianism).
It is necessary to understand that this is theorising about the real nature of interpersonal liberty (and hence the theory is falsifiable or, at least, criticisable) as opposed to merely defining the word “liberty” (which would be either stipulative or a type of popular usage, and so unfalsifiable). Moreover, the theory is not arrived at by, nor refutable by, conceptual analysis: for current concepts are, rather, just the limited, popular ones that give rise to the problem. After that, it is also necessary to distinguish the different levels at which the theory operates, because conflating these can also lead to confusion. 1) What libertarian liberty as such is abstractly theorised to be. 2) What is logically entailed by hypothetically applying such liberty to different logically possible situations. 3) What is logically entailed by applying it to the normal contingent facts of the real human world. 4) The affirmation, explanation, or defence of the idea that the application of such liberty to the real world is desirable (whether practically, economically, morally, etc.).
Does any of this really matter? Yes, it is absolutely vital. Because without some such theory, libertarianism at its very basis is a completely vague and ad hoc philosophical mess—however true and important the economics, history, and sociology might be. Self-described “libertarians” cannot even explain what liberty as such is, or relate it to anything at all. But with this theory it is possible to have sound and precise libertarian philosophical answers and solutions to myriad criticisms and problems. A tacit muddle turns into explicit clarity.
The social problem with the new solution
However, this liberty-centred, non-moral, pre-propertarian, libertarian theory is also combined with the critical-rationalist method: it is held, in every part and at every stage, as a conjecture for criticism—epistemologically unsupported and unsupportable (but not unexplained or unexplainable, or undefended or undefendable). And that combination is more than sufficient to make it a radically new Kuhnian paradigm. Consequently, this is something that most of the Old Guard of libertarians are very unlikely to accept, or even to understand. Many reviews of Escape from Leviathan are clearly unwittingly baffled by what is really being said about liberty (and many other things as well), and the most hopelessly baffled review is even incensed in proportion to its intellectual befuddlement. Consequently, the philosophically confused ‘justifications’ (although epistemologically impossible) of ‘libertarianism’ (although with no proper theory of liberty)—whether based on property, self-ownership, rights, utility, eudaemonism, contractarianism, argumentation ethics, etc.—are not likely to die out soon. It will be mainly a new generation of Young Turks that will understand and accept the new theory.