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.