Why there is no liberty on the “libertarian” right

Yesterday was Tax Freedom Day. That is, it was “the first day of the year that Britons work for themselves rather than the taxman,” at least according to the Adam Smith Institute. As such, it seems a rather apt time to discuss the right-wing libertarian notion of freedom.

The basic goal of (right) libertarianism, according to its own theorists, is the maximisation of individual liberty. This is perhaps explained the most lucidly by Ken Schoolland in The Philosophy of Liberty.

In essence, the philosophy of liberty “is based on the principle of self-ownership.” That is, “no other person, or group of persons, owns your life nor do you own the lives of others.” Further, your existence “is manifest in life, liberty, and the product of your life and liberty” and as such “to lose your life is to lose your future, to lose your liberty is to lose your present, and to lose the product of your life and liberty is to lose the portion of your past that produced it.”

The point where the left and right-libertarian interpretations of liberty diverge is when we get to property;

A product of your life and liberty is your property. Property is the fruit of your labor, the product of your time, energy, and talents. It is that part of nature that you turn to valuable use. And it is the property of others that is given to you by voluntary exchange and mutual consent. Two people who exchange property voluntarily are both better off or they wouldn’t do it. Only they may rightfully make that decision for themselves.

This, in essence is the homestead principle, the central tenet of right-libertarianism and “anarcho”-capitalism.

An anarchist communist would agree that you can be said to “own” that which you occupy and use. In fact, it is this principle from which opposition to wage-labour arises, seeing as it is the expropriation of surplus value (profit) from the fruit of your labour by another.

Contrary to the right, this leads us to conclude that property is theft. Because they conclude that once land has been “homesteaded” the proprietor has no need to further occupy or use it in order to maintain their claim to ownership. “Here, then,” in the words of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, “is a piece of land upon which, henceforth, no one has a right to step, save the proprietor and his friends.” Follow this principle to its logical conclusion, and soon those yet without property “will have nowhere to rest, no place to shelter, no ground to till. They will die at the proprietor’s door, on the edge of that property which was their birthright; and the proprietor, watching them die, will exclaim, ‘So perish idlers and vagrants.’”

I have dealt with this idea more fully in Property is theft and On Property and the right of inheritance. In those two posts, I have alluded to the point I want to expand upon here. That is, that the right-wing version of libertarianism justifies all that is wrong in the state as long as it only exists within private property and is a recipe for private tyranny.

In a recent blog post, right-libertarian blogger John Demetriou made the following point;

Many libertarians who are public in their politics (bloggers being a good example) are extreme feudalists. Propertarians. Anarcho-capitalists, totally uninterested in social matters, but utterly obsessed with private property ownership, as though that were the only gig in town and everything else mere decoration round the fucking theatre stage.

Needless to say, this line of thinking was not popular amongst his peers. However, it is a basic truth that they often “fail to support and encourage the rights, freedoms and liberties of people regardless of their wealth, standing and status as property owners.”

Demetriou argues that this is inconsistency on their part, but I contend that. To the contrary, this is the natural and expected consequence of the idea that liberty needs property. After all, if that is the case then “the rights, freedoms and liberties” of those without property are irrelevant. More than that, they are a barrier to the right, freedom, and liberty of the property owner to exercise a monopoly of force and absolute decision-making power over his own property. Thus “libertarianism,” especially in “anarcho”-capitalist form, is nothing less than a justification of private totalitarianism.

I have numerous times before cited Hans Hermann-Hoppe’s Democracy: The God That Failed as an an-cap concession of this point;

In a covenant concluded among proprietor and community tenants for the purpose of protecting their private property, no such thing as a right to free (unlimited) speech exists, not even to unlimited speech on one’s own tenant-property. One may say innumerable things and promote almost any idea under the sun, but naturally no one is permitted to advocate ideas contrary to the very purpose of the covenant of preserving private property, such as democracy and communism. There can be no tolerance towards democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from society. Likewise in a covenant founded for the purpose of protecting family and kin, there can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They — the advocates of alternative, non-family and kin-centred lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism — will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.

We can see how this manifests itself in practice, as well.

For example, a while ago I got entangled in a thread over at the Devil’s Kitchen about the supposed “right” of proprietors to ban people from their establishments. (The thread, like the original post, is now gone due to the fallout from an interview DK’s alter-ego did with Andrew Neil on Total Politics.) The story which led to the debate was the furore over a B&B owner banning a gay couple from his establishment, and DK was one of several libertarian bloggers who asserted his right to do so. In essence, proprietors have a right not to do business with people against their wishes, legislation sets a dangerous precedent, and “the market” will ensure that any injustice is corrected by people taking their business elsewhere after discovering this prejudice.

I made the point that although, yes, allowing the state to right wrongs with laws gives them licence to interfere elsewhere in more negative ways, statism and propertarianism weren’t the only two games in town. In fact, the reason that today people would remove their business from such a proprietor has nothing to do with “the market” and everything to do with a long campaign against such prejudice in order to change public attitudes. If that hadn’t happened, then “the market” would happily let the bigots thrive.

I suggested that, in place of state enforcement, people should challenge this discrimination with direct action akin to the sit-ins of the civil rights movement. Tellingly, this was met with horror and disapproval by libertarian commentors, defending property rights as utterly inviolable. They were, however, unable to suggest how discrimination of this kind could be challenged with out any violation of property. They were then reduced to quoting dictionary definitions at me to “refute” the idea that the monopoly of force exercised by the property owner is equivalent to the monopoly of force exercised by the state. Propertatrianism wasn’t private statism because they didn’t hold “the belief that the centralization of power in a state is the ideal or best way to organize humanity” so nur-nurny-nur-nur. Or words to that effect.

Despite this childish pedantry the main point, that private property is as coercive and authoritarian as the worst forms of the state, stands. In fact the state, as it exists in the West today, has an advantage over property precisely because of the (limited) concessions to freedom and democracy forced from below.

Returning to the Philosophy of Liberty, we find that one of the central points of the Homestead Principle is built upon a false premise which allows for coercion and domination. The sentence that “two people who exchange property voluntarily are both better off or they wouldn’t do it” seems innocent enough, until you realise that right-libertarians do not concede that there is such a thing as economic coercion. For example, Murray Rothbard saw wage labour as “a whole slew of institutions necessary to the triumph of liberty,” with rejection of it being “un-libertarian.”

This ignores the power that his ownership of property gives the employer over the employee. The relationship between them is distinctly unequal, making a mockery of the idea of voluntary exchange. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why employees organised themselves into trade unions – only collectively could their bargaining power match that of the employer or proprietor.

Chris Wilson, in How a Libertarian Capitalist Became a Libertarian Socialist, illustrates this point better than I can;

Jones is a individual who has zero access to capital, which excludes him from being self-employed. He must must find somebody who will share access to capital if he is to continue to eat. Fortunately, Smith has plenty of capital, and is willing to share it — under certain conditions of course. Smith says to Jones that he can use Smith’s capital to produce, *provided* that Jones engages in 90% of the productivity while Smith engages in 10%. Also, Jones will only receive 10% of the revenues despite all of his hard work, while Smith gets to keep 90% for his hoggish self. Jones agrees to these conditions because he has no other option. Is Jones morally bound by his agreement to allow Smith to keep 8 in 9 parts of what what Jones produces? The capitalist, of course, answers, “Yes”, and I once would have given the same answer, even though I knew intuitively that such an arrangement would be grossly unfair. My current answer is “No” — this relationship between Smith and Jones is inherently exploitive, and Jones is entitled to much better.

Wilson concludes that “a society in which human-created circumstances force people to “agree” to subject their will to that of a boss is by no means “free”.”

So do I. Such a society is inherently authoritarian and despotic. It makes a mockery of the words “anarchist” and “libertarian,” being instead the recipe for a myriad of private, feudal monarchies. From there, we either watch history repeat itself from the era of city states through to nations and empires or we see humanity destroy itself.

Either way, one basic fact holds true. If you want a recipe for genuine freedom, you will have to look beyond the right-wing and the “free” market.

Comments
17 Responses to “Why there is no liberty on the “libertarian” right”
  1. John Gault says:

    I’d like to deal with Chris Wilson’s illustrative analogy…

    The first flaw in Wilson’s example is the percentage of labor that is held as inherently unfair. The example says “Smith says to Jones that he can use Smith’s capital to produce, *provided* that Jones engages in 90% of the productivity while Smith engages in 10%.” In reality, however, this is not the case. Employees such as Jones–with no capital or resources of their own–come to the table with nothing but their own muscle power. That muscle power is limited in its ability to produce. It is only when muscle power is multiplied by mind power that production truly takes place. It is what the EMPLOYER provides–technology, tools, facility–that consititutes the majority of labor that went into the final product. The labor of Jones is integral–indispensable even–but it is still only responsible for production to a small percent. Labor is the key to the car. The car won’t start or run without it, but that doesn’t mean the key should cost as much as the car. Property is the car.

    The second mistake that Wilson makes is when he says: “Jones agrees to these conditions because he has no other option.”

    The very “business-friendly” nature of liberetarianism that you villify is the same nature that encourages as many people as possible to try and BECOME a Smith instead of a Jones. The result of this is that when Jones doesn’t like what Smith has to offer, there will always be a Robinson or a Taylor or a Wilson down the street willing to compete for Jones’s labor–offering better conditions than Smith and eliminating the exploitative nature of Smith’s monopoly power over Jones in the original example.

    As you very ably pointed out, the entire philosophy being espoused in your post relies upon a presuppostion. That presupposition is that “In fact, it is this principle from which opposition to wage-labour arises, seeing as it is the expropriation of surplus value (profit) from the fruit of your labour by another.”

    In fact, there is no expropriation of surplus value. Each step of the exchange process generates profit which is then kept by those who contributed to its generation. When the employee agrees, voluntarily, to exchange his labor for wages, he is selling a commodity. He is selling his sweat. He, necessarily, values his wage more than he values his sweat, or he wouldn’t make the exchange. Therefore, he has profited. The employer now owns that labor. He has paid for it. He then combines that labor with his own contributions–capital, technology, industry, intellect, infrastructure, etc.–to produce something more–which is then exchanged for a higher price and a profit. The profit from this exchange has NOTHING to do with the original laborer because he voluntarily sold his labor to the employer. Since the employer, as a consequence, owns all the ingredients of the final product–Labor + Technology + Capital–there is no moral or ethical reason to compensate the worker any further.

    • Adam Drinkwater says:

      ” Employees such as Jones–with no capital or resources of their own–come to the table with nothing but their own muscle power. That muscle power is limited in its ability to produce. It is only when muscle power is multiplied by mind power that production truly takes place. It is what the EMPLOYER provides–technology, tools, facility–that consititutes the majority of labor that went into the final product” – But Jones was never able to have the capital to be the employer, so he sill enters the agreement on unequal terms. The problem with this argument is that everyone has the same accsess to capital as everyone else, but they don’t because wealth breeds wealth. And for every plucky working class person who has gone on to become very wealthy there are millions of others who simply cant.

      In capitalism there isn’t an equality of opportunity, and because of this people cannot enter agreements equaly.

      • John Gault says:

        You are conveniently ignoring the fact that all wealth is created from nothing. EVERY fortune has behind it the story of the “plucky working class person who has gone on to become very wealthy”. If that person then chooses to bequeath his or her earnings, then they have a very fortunate heir–but that heir will not be able to retain said fortune without some degree of the ingenuity that made it possible to begin with. The fact is that capitalism values equality in potential, socialism values equality of results. The problem is that equality of results can only be achieved by cutting the tops off mountains–it can never be achieved by raising valleys.

        • Adam Drinkwater says:

          wealth is created by exploiting natural resources, not nothing. only the wealthy have the ability to accsess this, in years gone by it was the strongest, in capitalism there has to be inequality or it doesn’t work.

        • Phil Dickens says:

          “You are conveniently ignoring the fact that all wealth is created from nothing. EVERY fortune has behind it the story of the “plucky working class person who has gone on to become very wealthy””

          Actually, this is a fallacy which entirely ignores the massive state coercion undertaken in the feudalist, mercantilist, and present corporatist systems in order to engineer existing property relations and the current class system.

          • John Gault says:

            I’m not ignoring state coercion at all…This discussion is about the difference between two ideals–Libertarianism and Socialims. Neither of these two states of being exist anywhere on Earth. The current system of politics and economics is completely bastardized by state intervention. In a proper, free-market economy, however, wealth is the product of mutually beneficial exchange.

            • Phil Dickens says:

              This may be true. I would contend it, for reasons outline elsewhere, but I can’t know for sure whether a genuinely free market (if it could exist) would result in such a scenario.

              However, I was pointing to your suggestion that “EVERY fortune has behind it the story of the plucky working class person who has gone on to become very wealthy,” which is not only a falsehood but is a reference to the reality of the present.

    • Student says:

      “It is only when muscle power is multiplied by mind power that production truly takes place.”

      Ouch… Just ouch.

      Apparently what you took away from this example is that one man wishes to start a business, and this man hires one employee to help him with it. In this example, I may concede that the first man deserves a high level of his profits (given a current capitalistic and monetary society), although 90% is far too high. However, what the example explicitly states is that one man, with no capital, requires capital to start a business of his own idea. It is *his* mind power and *his* muscle power that are providing the product to the people, and this second man is simply supplying that imaginary power of money (or possibly other forms of capital that are more tangible, i.e. land, et cetera). The muscle power and the mind power already exist, and yet this first man, named Jones, is unable to provide to society unless he is exploited by a different man, Smith.

      A real life example: I have been spoken to as a consultant for a corporation in fixing a problem that saved them millions of dollars. How much do I receive? A couple hundred. Even though it was my *mind* power which *multiplied* their *muscle* power, I receive a fraction of a percent of their profits. This is capitalism. This is property. This is theft.

      In which now your next mistake involving multiple options. I have never lived on a street that has three people lined up, willing to give me large amounts of capital. If Jones has ZERO capital, almost nobody will want to invest in him, no matter how good his idea is, because he has no way of paying them back if it does fall through the floor. Why does this matter? Because capitalism, I don’t understand why money is important. So, 90% has already been diminished, possibly starting as high as 99.9%. Jones has already gone door to door and gotten laughed at in his face. Smith kindly lets it down to 90%. Just because this step is skipped in the example does not mean that it is forgotten.

      So, in short, you called a man an idiot simply because he was poor. Nice going. In actuality, this man provided some *muscle* power, most of the *mind* power and was simply short on *capital* power (which, in your post, you didn’t call anything, only attributing it as part of *mind* power, which is totally inaccurate). Your false assumption, in case you missed it, was that people with no capital have nothing besides their body, when I’m quite sure this thing that does the thinking in me is as good as any rich person’s. (I won’t speak of yours…)

      If your post were to convince me of anything, it would convince me to become an anarcho-communist. That level of socio-economic discrimination is ridiculous. “Poor are stupid, rich are smart” is all I got from that post (and the last half of attempted and failed hole-poking).

      However, if I am mistaken, feel free to correct me.

      • Phil Dickens says:

        Couldn’t have put it better myself!

      • John Gault says:

        One of us–and I’m entirely willing to admit that it may have been me–has misunderstood the scenario outlined by Wilson in the original post. The paragraph says nothing about Jones seeking investment in a business idea of his own. It simply says that he needs access to capital in order to eat. I interpreted this as an allegory on wage-labor with Jones in the role of entry-level laborer and Smith as the business owner willing to pay wages.

        If, in fact, the story is of a dirt-poor genius with a mental image of the “better mouse-trap” and Smith as the evil venture capitalist, then the example is even more flawed. In a Libertarian society, a man like Jones would never have a problem finding men like Smith to invest in his business ideas–provided the ideas were sound and represented profit for both Jones AND Smith. Furthermore, when there is profit to be made, there will always be competition. Smith will have to compete with Conway Investments, Cooper Capital, and Franklin Funding. Since the risk lies with the investor (Jones has nothing to lose), it is only right that the rewards should fall more heavily upon Smith in the event of success. Jones wouldn not, however, be forced to take Smith’s offer of 90% unless his idea were not very good to begin with–and Smith was the only one willing to take the risk.

        Regarding your real-life example. You’re moaning about how little you got paid when you sold your ideas, as a consultant, to a company that saved millions of dollars by implementing them…First, you were paid more than the idea was worth to you. How do I know that? Because you agreed to it. Obviously, keeping the ideas to yourself wouldn’t have done you as much good as the money you received for them or you wouldn’t have sold them. Once you sold them, however, they don’t belong to you any more and how the company chooses to implement them–as well as the profits they gain from doing so–do not belong to you either–and they shouldn’t. If you sell me a block of clay for $2 and I sculpt that clay into a work of art that somebody else is willing to pay me a million dollars for, should I really have to cut you in on the profit because you sold me a hunk of mud? Come on…

  2. John Gault says:

    I’m sorry, Adam, but you’re wrong. Wealth is not created from the exploitation of natural resources. Natural resources, like manual labor, constitute a microscopic portion of the value inherent in a finished product and a final transaction. Wealth is created when voluntary exchange takes place–where each person values that which they are getting more than that which they are giving up. It is the win/win nature of capitalism that creates wealth.

    • Phil Dickens says:

      This only proves that “wealth” is an entirely subjective concept detatched from reality. Without the natural resource and/or the labour power, the voluntary exchange cannot happen. Both are always neccesary in wealth creation. Without the voluntary exchange, natural resources and labour power can still produce what a person needs to survive. Where this is not the case, it is because the labour power or the available resource is inadequate. Always, these are the deciding factors. All capitalist economics does is distort this to create obscene extremities of both wealth and poverty.

    • K says:

      I’m skeptical of calling it a voluntary exchange as if every scenario is a perfect situation in which each party is adequately informed to make a decision. So, basically, if I had the idea to create a Big Mac hamburger (which I think is disgusting since I hate sauces) and someone walked up to me and offered me $200 yesterday to let them go and sell Big Macs, but I was completely unaware that other people indeed DO like sauces on hamburgers, you think I wouldn’t have made a different decision had I seen someone enjoying sauce on food prior to the exchange? I probably WOULD have made a different decision. Now, what if the person who offered me $200 knew full well that people LOVE sauce on burgers and willfully sought to prevent me from having adequate information to make the decision that brings me closest to the goals I have in mind? I don’t think it makes sense to stuff that under the umbrella of “voluntary” or “consensual” behavior.

      • K says:

        Hell, even if I was spiteful and went out and set up my own Big Mac vending cart, I could already be out of what I would’ve actually been able to get on my own since the dude who gave me $200 already has established himself as the “original” Big Mac and has made enough money to beat me out in terms of advertising, production, development, etc.

  3. Hannah Kay says:

    Anarcho-capitalism isnt anarchism at all. Anarchism is about dividing up authority into everyone’s hands equaly, while right wing “liberatarianism” is about giving that authority to fewer and fewer people, with less and less safeguards to prevent its abuse.

    We spend most of our active week at work where our employers already have far too much power over us. The last thing I want is my boss bieng handed a mandate for even less accountability by these fruitloop Thatcherites.

    The sort of world where workers cannot survive without stabbing each other in the backs to undercut wages and conditions, for basic survival while the few live richer than ever is the only society that disgusts me more than fascism and if that day were ever to come I gauruntee you that I’d make it my life’s mission to personaly hunt down every single person responsible for it’s creation. It really does concern me that much.

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  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Mikhail I, Phil Dickens. Phil Dickens said: PiT: Why there is no liberty to be found on the “libertarian” right http://bit.ly/dpPCt5 [...]

  2. [...] There is a high justification, then, to follow suit. Especially as even a “non-capitalist” market would allow for the accumulation of individual wealth. It is not a leap from that to private property in the capitalist sense of the word, and thus the pitfalls of the “libertarian” right. [...]



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