The term ‘Libertarian’ encompasses several schools of thought, all of them devoted to the essential idea of liberty (as we might expect,) otherwise known as freedom. This is a fine thing; most of us hold the idea of freedom in fairly high regard.
Things get tricky, though, in the matter of defining what, exactly, liberty is. There are two main big categories most people invoke here, negative and positive liberty. Negative liberty is freedom from things, such as the freedom from conscription or taxation. Positive liberty is the freedom to do things, such as the freedom to eat chocolate right now or take a vacation to the Grand Canyon.
The common libertarians with which most of us are acquainted here in the US (we may call them vulgar libertarians or Vultarians,) limit themselves to a negative conception of liberty. They go on to formulate their philosophy of governmental non-interference as based on property rights, contracts, and the free market. The government, they say, should limit itself to enforcing property rights and contracts, without interfering with the free market.
There are several problems with this formulation, which I will explore through these three questions.
1. What is government?
2. What is a free market?
3. What is property?
1. Firstly, government is not, as many seem to think, merely the structures and people appointed by law to rule over a given piece of territory. Many Libertarians apparently labor under the misapprehension that if by some magical effect all of the official federal, state, and local governmental employees disappeared tomorrow, we would have no more government. This is hogwash.
“Government” is an emergent property of human society. All peoples have government, and everyone is at some point along the spectrum of governmental power, though most of us are very near the bottom. Church leaders are part of the government. High school cliques are government. Gangs are government.
Government is nothing more than the structure of the distribution of power throughout society. Power is the ability to control people and resources.
So this is the first important misconception of Libertarianism, that ‘freedom’ means freedom only from the official, federal government. If we replace a democratically elected master with a corporate master, we have not freed ourselves, but possibly made our freedom even more difficult to obtain.
2. The ‘free market’, as glorified in much of Libertarian thought, does not exist. The government, both official and not, does a great deal to shape and assist corporate America. Without tax breaks, subsidies, protectionist laws, monopolies, bullshit contracts, etc, corporate America as we know it would not exist.
Libertarians mistake corporate America for a ‘free market’. It’s not. For us to truly have a ‘free market’ society in which people are actually free to buy and sell labor, commodities, enter into business with each other, make contracts, etc., then we need to actually have a free market.
This is the biggest hypocrisy of the Vultarians. They complain about the horrors of being taxed to provide food for the destitute, but are perfectly okay with government policies which give millions of dollars to major corporations.
Moreover, as explored above, corporations are a form of government. Power is the ability to control resources, and government is the distribution of power, not just the investiture of laws. Liberty, therefore, must also mean the freedom from coercion of all forms, including corporate coercion. It is a fine thing to be free of coercion from Washington, but if you must in exchange rise at a set hour every morning, work under the foreman’s constant supervision for 8, 9, 12 hours a day, dress as required, HAVE YOUR WIFE TAKE A BLOOD TEST BECAUSE YOUR BOSS SAYS SO, and in all other matters set your day by your bosses’ dictates, then you have no freedom at all.
Contracts, which Libertarians hold up as an ideal way to arrange matters in society, are especially problematic in light of the governmental power of corporations. Contracts between free and independent equals are fine, but when one party to the contract is significantly more powerful than the other, then we are operating under the threat of coercion. We cannot honestly say that a contract has any legitimacy if one party faces starvation if they don’t sign. Likewise, in our present society, one cannot get a credit card, buy a car, go to college, obtain credit, buy insurance, deposit money at the bank, buy a house, or do a great number of other things without being first required to sign a contract. The alternative–to do without these things–is almost impossible. These contracts, then, are compulsory and supported whole-heartedly by the official government, which sees no reason not to increase the power of the corporate government at the expense of the people.
A true libertarian, therefore, must look to protect the people no only from the coercion of the official government, but also from the coercion of all forms of power.
3. “If I were asked to answer the following question: What is slavery? and I should answer in one word, It is murder!, my meaning would be understood at once. No extended argument would be required… Why, then, to this other question: What is property? may I not likewise answer, It is robbery!, without the certainty of being misunderstood; the second proposition being no other than a transformation of the first?”
â€”Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property?
Property is the most sacred principle of Libertarians; the idea of ‘get off my land and let go of my money and leave me alone,’ in short. But much of the current distribution of property is unjust, or stems from unjust beginnings. Most of us here in the US live on stolen land–land stolen from the Native American Indians. How can we make any claim to ‘ownership’ when we got the land from people who got it from people who murdered the people who had it first?
The history of land is a history of dispossession and murder, not just in the US. Much of what is now regarded as ‘private property’ was once public–common grazing areas, common forests, etc. The idea that an individual, rather than a community, can ‘own’ a piece of land which they themselves are not cultivating or otherwise maintaining is of relatively recent vintage, and was invented for the sole benefit of the wealthy.
The enclosure of the common spaces has deprived the common people of what was once regarded as their right–the right to graze their cattle, to raise their crops, and roam at will.
The imposition of one person’s ‘rights’ with regard to the land has come at the expense of the rights of all other persons to that land. One person’s freedom to do as they wish with their land comes at the expense of everyone else’s freedom to do as they wish with the land.
If we regard it as the proper duty of the government to protect the property rights of individuals, as Libertarians do, then the government must first ensure that the distribution of property is fair and just, not based on theft and murder, and not unduly imposing upon the liberties of the rest of the bulk of the population. The liberty of the majority must come before the liberty of the few, for the obvious reason of thereby maximizing liberty.
There are other kinds of property we may mention besides land, of course. Patents and Copyrights are obvious ones. These are property rights to monopolies on ideas. They were originally instituted for the common good, in order to promote creativity and development through monetary incentives. However, the IP system has become little more than a bludgeon with which major corporations extract money and energy from each other and bully minor corporations. Rather than encouraging innovation and growth, corporations use patents to block and inhibit innovation and growth, contrary to the public interest for which they were first created. Through patents, corporations (and their lawyers) get rich without developing anything, creating anything, or otherwise contributing to the public good.
The idea of owning an idea is, at best, specious. No idea comes entirely from itself; every idea has its roots in previous ideas.
Locke describes the right of property ownership as deriving from effort expended by the owner–that is, if I gather seeds and plant and water them and they sprout into trees, I may claim those trees as mine, due to the effort put into them.
But if you first tilled the soil and dragged in heavy bags of fertilizer, dug wells on the land, and built an irrigation system, and all I did was collect a few seeds from the fruit trees you had planted a few years back, then planted those seeds in the soil and watered them with the water you had provided, what right would I have to claim those fruit trees as mine? They ought, justly, to be the common property of both of us, for we have both expended effort on their creation.
Likewise, the same is true of ideas. The government can arbitrarily declare that this idea is this person’s property, and that idea is another’s, and so on and so forth until they have divided up the entirety of land and sky, but this does not make the distribution just, nor should the government therefore enforce it.
Liberty, then, as the object of libertarianism, cannot be regarded as simply residing in protection of property, freedom from government interference, or the unfettered workings of the market. We must start from the idea of liberty itself, and then evaluate how each things may impose upon it, and oppose them in turn where their imposition is unjust. To do any less–to allow people to be oppressed by the rich, coerced into unfair contracts and deprived of their natural rights of movement and of their common property by laws enacted by the rich, is an utter betrayal of liberty.