Distinguishing Libertarian Philosophy from Political Strategy

Private property is the foundation of the libertarian society, and in Rothbardian theory, a libertarian society is one founded on absolute private property rights. In the libertarian society, all property is private property. Libertarianism is thus constructed on the principle of self-ownership: the libertarian society is a free society in which each individual is a self-owner. As Murray Rothbard explains in The Ethics of Liberty, “Obviously, in a free society, Smith has the ultimate decision-making power over his own just property, Jones over his, etc.”

In that way, Rothbard establishes the foundations of an ethical political philosophy. His aim is “to develop libertarianism” as “a ‘science’ or discipline of individual liberty.” Rothbard conceptualizes liberty as a moral principle: “It should be clear from this work that, first and foremost, liberty is a moral principle, grounded in the nature of man. In particular, it is a principle of justice, of the abolition of aggressive violence in the affairs of men.” Beyond that, there is no consensus among libertarians on the moral, social, or political principles on which the libertarian society would be based. A society that violated or abolished the right to self-ownership would of course not be a libertarian society in the Rothbardian sense. Nevertheless, subject to defending the right to self-ownership and private property as well as upholding the nonaggression principle (NAP), libertarianism does not prescribe the personal values that self-owners must uphold.

Based on the principle of self-ownership, would it follow that any society founded on absolute private property and the NAP is ipso facto a libertarian society? To give an example, since private property entails the right to exclude, would it follow that any society founded on private property that excludes people for any reason—for example, as punishment for violating its preferred speech guidelines or violating its moral precepts—is a libertarian society? After all, excluding people is the prerogative of the owner, and no right to free speech or freedom of conscience can override the owner’s prerogative to exclude from his private property anyone who expresses opinions or beliefs of which he disapproves. If a wandering missionary rings your doorbell and seeks entry to your home for purposes of converting you to his religion, you have a right to say no. The missionary cannot complain that his free speech and freedom of belief have been violated.

Many similar examples could be given. In the famous 1895 English case of Bradford v. Pickles, Mr. Pickles sunk a well on his land with the sole motive of diverting water from a river that supplied a nearby city. His intention was to put pressure on the city to pay him a tidy sum to secure the riparian rights in his land. The question was whether he was entitled to do as he pleased with his own property (sinking the well) or whether the exercise of private property rights is dependent on showing that the owner bears no malice toward others. The House of Lords held that there was no requirement to show what, if any, good motive lay behind the owner’s right to deal with his own property as he pleased. The principle was established that “no use of property, which would be legal if due to a proper motive, can become illegal because it is prompted by a motive which is improper or even malicious.” This ruling, although it has long since been superseded by regulatory intervention to regulate land use and water supply, captures the libertarian essence of private property and the absolute nature of the owner’s prerogative to answer to no one in making decisions about his own property.

A property owner is entitled peremptorily to exclude anyone for good reason, bad reason, or no reason. The question that has troubled both “thin” and “thick” libertarians is whether the libertarian society is one in which the owner is free to be as kind or as malicious as he pleases, or whether there are extra rules that must be followed in the libertarian society and, if so, whether such extra rules can accurately be described as “libertarian.” Charles Johnson puts the question as follows:

To what extent should libertarians concern themselves with social commitments, practices, projects or movements that seek social outcomes beyond, or other than, the standard libertarian commitment to expanding the scope of freedom from government coercion? . . . In other words, should libertarianism be seen as a “thin” commitment, which can be happily joined to absolutely any set of values and projects, “so long as it is peaceful,” or is it better to treat it as one strand among others in a “thick” bundle of intertwined social commitments?

If the only moral principle of the libertarian society is to protect private property, that means in theory there could be one libertarian society founded on classical liberal principles, another founded on anarchic principles, and another founded on Machiavellian political principles—endless possibilities, including a libertarian society founded on “voluntary fascism.” Mordor itself, even Hades, would qualify as libertarian suffice it only that they were founded on private property rights and the NAP. That conclusion would be troubling and indeed abhorrent to many libertarians, who therefore seek a principled ground to ascertain what properly counts as “libertarian.”

However, philosophical labels are not always a helpful guide in ascertaining political, social, and moral goals. For example, there is often little in common between “left libertarians,” many of whom reject the concept of self-ownership and attach no particular significance to private property rights, and “right libertarians,” who prioritize property rights and range from the Center Right to the Hard Right and Far Right. In political debate, assigning the label “libertarian” to all these groups not only fails to reflect comprehensively their underlying political principles, but also fails to signal to the public what precisely is being espoused, making it impossible to distinguish between one political movement and another.

Political disputation is not confined to the ground of an ethics of liberty but extends to cover matters of political strategy. Political strategy often involves coalitions and alliances that may cover many different philosophical perspectives. As Murray Rothbard observes in “A Strategy for the Right,” there is no obviously accurate political label to identify the political strategy that he defended:

The word “conservative” is unsatisfactory. The original right never used the term “conservative”: we called ourselves individualists, or “true liberals,” or rightists. . . . So what should we call ourselves? I haven’t got an easy answer, but perhaps we could call ourselves radical reactionaries, or “radical rightists,” the label that was given to us by our enemies in the 1950s. Or, if there is too much objection to the dread term “radical,” we can follow the suggestion of some of our group to call ourselves “the Hard Right.” Any of these terms is preferable to “conservative,” and it also serves the function of separating ourselves from the official conservative movement which, as I shall note in a minute, has been largely taken over by our enemies.

Rothbard observes that while there were points of consensus within the Old Right on matters of culture “because everyone was imbued with, and loved the old culture,” there were also many points of disagreement:

Within the overall consensus, then, on the Old Right, there were many differences within the framework, but differences that remained remarkably friendly and harmonious . . . free trade or protective tariff, immigration policy, and within the policy of “isolationism,” whether it should be “doctrinaire” isolationism, such as my own, or whether the United States should regularly intervene in the Western Hemisphere or in neighboring countries . . . other differences, which also exist, are more philosophical: should we be Lockians, Hobbesians, or Burkeans: natural rightsers, or traditionalists, or utilitarians? On political frameworks, should we be monarchists, check-and-balance federalists, or radical decentralists?

The Old Right did disagree on how precisely to construct the free society to which they all aspired, but it is clear that these points of disagreement were “friendly and harmonious” because they all fell within the same overall cultural consensus. They debated whether to be “natural rightsers, or traditionalists, or utilitarians,” not whether to be liberals, or communists, or fascists.

Ultimately, the debate on what a libertarian society is shows the philosophical limits of the political philosophy of libertarianism. Libertarianism, in the philosophical sense articulated in Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty, is a “natural-rights morality” concerned with “the natural sphere of property and ownership, the foundation of liberty . . . each individual’s justified sphere of free action.” It is not a moral theory of everything and cannot answer questions concerning the moral code to which each man should aspire in his own life. For that, he must look elsewhere than libertarian philosophy. Nor is it correct for a libertarian to frame his own personal moral predilections or religious convictions, whatever those may happen to be, as “libertarian.” An overlap between one’s own moral principles and libertarianism—for example, as concerns the importance of individual liberty—does not mean that one’s own religion is also an essential component of libertarianism or that any adherent of libertarianism must therefore subscribe to one’s particular religion.

Similarly, in the libertarian society, the self-owner is free to be as kind and compassionate or as vicious and malevolent as he pleases according to the dictates of his own conscience as long as he does not aggress against others or violate their property rights. However, it would not follow in these cases that kindness and compassion are essential to being “libertarian”; nor would it follow, should one encounter a libertarian who is vicious and malevolent, that viciousness and malevolence are components of “libertarianism.”

Finally, the point Rothbard makes about a strategy for liberty is also important in this context: self-evidently, one’s moral or political principles, whatever those might be, must not be inherently incompatible with the principles of self-ownership and property rights as the foundation of liberty and justice. An overriding devotion to justice is required. Rothbard explains: “Hence, to be grounded and pursued adequately, the libertarian goal must be sought in the spirit of an overriding devotion to justice . . . the libertarian must be possessed of a passion for justice, an emotion derived from and channeled by his rational insight into what natural justice requires.”

Originally Posted at https://mises.org/

By Mises