Blogs > Liberty and Power > Libertarians and Freedom - Two Kinds?

Jul 25, 2007 9:02 pm


Libertarians and Freedom - Two Kinds?



I have been fascinated in a horrified sort of way with how many classical liberals and some libertarians supported Bush administration initiatives when it has trod heavily on every principle some had given their allegiance to for many years. Decades even.

The reasons why are complex, and to some extent can only be answered by psychology and weakness of character. But I think there are ideological factors as well. I think libertarian and classical liberal ideology appeals to two very different kinds of people, those who support liberty because people should be free to live their lives as they wish so long as they don’t aggress on others, and those who want to be free to live their lives as they wish.

This post launches my investigation to see whether some on this list agree or have interesting reasons for disagreeing.

I want to use property rights as a diagnostic device. Everyone here supports private property, I imagine, but there are two broadly different ways classical liberals and libertarians conceive of and defend private property. They often coexist, but they have different 'flavors'.


First, private property is something over which I exercise control. If it is all mine my control is total. In a classic statement of this position, Sir William Blackstone observed “There is nothing which so generally strikes the imagination and engages the affections of mankind as the right of property; or that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, to the total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.”

Second, private property is a bundle of discrete rights. Some rights can be sold or rented without denying other unsold and unrented rights. When we think of private property in this way it is not so much a thing as it is a field of possible relationships with others and (potentially) with what is considered property.

This second view makes it possible to raise a question difficult to address in the first: what relationships are appropriate and what relationships are inappropriate? The first has a simple answer – you may not aggress on my boundaries. All else is permitted. Not so the second because property is not a thing with boundaries but a set of potential and realized relationships.

From this perspective inappropriate relationships can not be property rights at all, and this so-called “limitation” is in no sense a limitation on genuine private property rights. For example, many people myself included have no problems with buying and selling animals. But many, myself included, would argue that there is no right for an owner to torture his or her animal. Ownership does not appropriately include that right. Some people, myself included, would go farther, and say if I own an animal I take on certain obligations to care for its welfare. Thus the “private property” that is my dog or cat is not the same as the “private property” that is my pen or shoe, where few indeed would argue such obligations exist. The same word is used to describe different sets of relationships, but in both cases I can buy and sell what I own.

A despot or would be despot can consistently be a libertarian or classical liberal if he or she believes they will never exercise power and want no power exercised over them. But when “their side” is in power, all restraints are off beyond prudential ones. I think such people would be attracted to the first model of property and not much to the second.

I hypothesize classical liberals and libertarians who are more attracted to the first kind of reason than they are to the second will be more likely to also support or have until recently supported, the Bush administration on a number of issues, such as the war, and perhaps even be drawn to authoritarian politicians such as Guiliani.

I have not read Barnett for years, but wonder where he falls on this issue of property rights? I assume someone on this list knows.


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Sudha Shenoy - 7/28/2007

1. Anglo-Saxon law was that of a closed, hierarchical order -- eg, 3 classes of slave, 3 of semi-slave, then commoner, noble, etc. Penalties for offences were scaled to the legal status of the person: higher penalties for offending against a 3rd-class slave of the king, lower penalties for injuring a 3rd-class slave owned by a commoner, etc. This is from the oldest compilation of customary law. See F L Attenborough, The Laws of the Earliest English Kings, ?1922.

Common law developed from the 12th century onwards, after the 'Norman Conquest'. Obviously the Normans had no place in Anglo-Saxon law. The common law developed as lawyers found solutions for their clients' problems.

The medieval common law was completely transformed from the later 15th century onwards, as economic activity expanded & as long-distance trade burgeoned. It is this evolving common law which is one of the defining features of the Anglophone world.

See S F C Milsom, A Natural History of the Common Law, 2003 (brilliant but not easy); J H Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History, 4th ed 2002.

2. Slavery is found in Anglo-Saxon England, but not in Norman England. There is no common law of slavery. In the West Indian & American colonies, bits of Roman law had to be brought in, & legislation passed, to legalise slavery.


Tim Sydney - 7/27/2007

Also check out the ISI speech by Allan Carlson called "A Radical Economics? Capitalism and the Quest for Community". This has a discussion of the Robert Nisbet - Karl Polyani (did I spell that right?) connection. The text version can be found here.
The speech was delivered at this conference (see link.

The audio MP3 version is also worth listening to and has more detail than the posted transcript. See here.


Stephen W Carson - 7/27/2007

I have tried to critique Rummel at a theoretical level in my paper "Stealing and Killing": http://independent.org/publications/tir/article.asp?issueID=48&;articleID=614

The relevance to this discussion is that I challenge Rummel's focus on "regime types" (democracies vs. dictatorships) with a focus on private-property rights. My approach leaves far less room for acclaiming a democratic regime that systematically violates property rights (even if it is in the name of defeating dictatorships).


Gus diZerega - 7/26/2007

Absolutely fascinating. Sounds like it in many ways echoes James C. Scott's Thinking Like a State, but does so with mostly different material. And it is suggestive of some ideas I'm working on that end up arguing (so far anyway) that the primary realm of individual freedom is civil society, not the market order.

I'm going to read that book. Many thanks, Tim, for bringing it to my attention.

Gus


Gus diZerega - 7/26/2007

I'm convinced, Steve. One hypothesis down. This is one of the advantages of sites like this.

There is an irony here - a sad one. The socialist international came to grief on the rocks of nationalism during WWI. Nationalism also corrupted many Progressives afterwards. Now many who described themselves as right wing anti-statists have come to a similar grief.

What can cure a people of this hideous mental affliction? While I've come to the conclusion the US is simply too big and powerful for its own good. But I remember that American's' pushy nationalism was a turn off for Tocqueville. And then we were not so big and powerful.



Gus diZerega - 7/26/2007

I no longer follow Rummel very closely - I stopped after he became so intransigent in Iraq. I dip into his site occasionally, and as quickly dip out.

It's sad to hear that, though.


Anthony Gregory - 7/26/2007

Hear, hear, Jeff.

As it turns out, violent, state-implemented intervention breeds negative results. Who would have thought?


Anthony Gregory - 7/26/2007

Well, Rummel came right out explicitly in favor of censoring the media, FDR-style. That strikes me as a clear, self-aware departure from classical liberal thinking.


Anthony Gregory - 7/26/2007

I think it's important to recognize that US foreign policy has strengthened and multiplied the Islamo-fanatics, and that this was a near-inevitable consequence of the war in Iraq as well as the war in Afghanistan and that everyone should have realized this on 9/12/01. We have to get over this idea that the government is there to protect us or save us or liberate people and see it as our enemy and as a threat to our liberty, especially when it wages war.


Jeff Riggenbach - 7/26/2007

"Bill Woolsey talks about, and I can not quite tell if he is being sarcastic here, Muslims 'committed to enforcing Sharia law on all of us and that includes stoning homosexuals, keeping women in the home, outlawing alcohol, banning interest, etc., etc. Massive violations of individual liberty.' I think it is very important to acknowledge that these people do exist. . ."

It is equally important to acknowledge that these people constitute a tiny minority in the Muslim world and that they are widely regarded *in that world* as delusional.

". . .they are growing stronger as well as more numerous. . ."

Yes. Thanks to U.S. interventions in the Middle East, more and more residents of that part of the world are given what they take to be reasons to reconsider whether their radical fellow Muslims are really so delusional after all. Without these interventions, the Al-Qaeda types would be taken seriously by almost no one.

JR


Bill Woolsey - 7/26/2007

It is a bit of a puzzle as to why so many people fail to recognize that Saudi Arabia is an islamist state allied to the U.S. and hated by Al Quada for being impure. Iraq and Syria are anti Islamist states opposed to the U.S. And Iran is an Islamist state opposed to Al Quaida.

Perhaps it is just too complicated?

The people of Iraq and Syria are nearly all muslims, and even if their authoritarian regimes are anti-Islamist, the people of Iraq and Syria really believe that Sharia law should be imposed on all of us and support the suicide bombers killing us all...

So, we must take out even the secularist authoritarian regimes and make all those people into secular liberals...

I realize this is subject to the "how can any sane adult believe..."

Also, I think there is also the issue of suicide bombings in Israel. Iran, Iraq, and Syria provide substantial aid to those efforts (more or less openly.) The fact that Iraq and Syria are secularists didn't stop them from helping Hamas suicide bombers. And there is purportedly a strong connection between Iran to Hezbollah, to Palestian suicide bombers.

Maybe Iraq, Syria, and Iran didn't help Al Quaida yet, but their willingness to support Hamas suggests that secularists in Iraq and Syria have no principled opposition to supporting religious fanatics who suicide bomb. Why not Al Quaida? Similarly, the connection between Iran and Sunni Palestian Islamists show there is no pricipled opposition by Shias to helping Sunnis.

How many of our libertarian war supportes are strongly Zionist?

Of course, I know some moderately Zionist libertarians who always opposed the war in Iraq. I presume some more strongly Zionist libertarians were the same.

But, it is something I have considered. A strong engagement with the threat of terrorism in Israel (as opposed to Al Quaida vs. U.S.) and so a view of Syria, Iraq, and Iran that discounts the fact that Al Quaida is the moral enemy of those regimes.

Remember, we are in a war against terrorism, not a war against Al Quaida.

I don't think all libertarians are willing to say, "Hamas is Israel's problem, not ours."

I think it is much easier for libertarians who are anti-Zionists to take that position. And further, to have the view that Israel is always going to subject to a greather threat from Islamic (and Arab) terrorism than the U.S.


Bill Woolsey - 7/26/2007

Yes, I have difficulty believing it, but after meeting people who hold such beliefs, and who are are otherwise sane, I must accept that otherwise sane people can hold such beliefs.

Don't other libertarians have this experience?

I find it puzzling that someone must imagine that it is a matter of property rights theory.


Tim Sydney - 7/26/2007

I've been reading the english translation of French National Archives historian Regine Pernoud's "Those Terrible Middle Ages! -Debunking the myths."

I'm only about half way through but there is a parallel between Pernoud's writing and Gus's ideas that may be worth exploring.

Pernoud argues that slavery more or less declined with the Roman Empire and that serfs, recognised as persons with rights, rather than as property, were thus in a better position than slaves. The middle ages were in a sense liberating. Fast forward to the 16th century, the renaissance and the "neo-classical" revival and we see the institution of slavery shaking off it's medieval slumber and exploding into the New World aided by marine international commerce.

Pernoud says that the revival of Roman Law facilitated this trend. She also looks at women's rights and finds a parallel development there. Medieval women were in a more egalitarian situation vis a vis men than were women in either the classical or "neo-classical" period. Again she implicates Roman Law.

There is a connection here with property or landed property too. There was certainly "private property" in medieval times, private property of many types, but generally it was a bundle of rights (often usufruct rights) that varied from place to place. Their property law regime was heterogeneous rather than a more classical style "rationalistic" universalist system that was to emerge from the great absolutist monarchical nation states and roll forward to today's democracies.

My knowledge of legal history is unfortunately too poor than to do anything but splash about in these waters. My understanding is that Roman Law was influential in Continental Europe, but that Common Law, with it's distinctive medieval anglosaxon roots prevailed in England and her offspring. So how does this analysis work for slavery in England? I have no idea.

But Pernoud's overall analysis does seem intriguing.

It also has some interesting parallels to Robert Nisbet's critique of 19th century "laissez faire" as elaborated in his "Quest For Community" but maintained in later books. Nisbet derived his ideas here from a former Austrian Classical liberal turned conservative communitarian Karl (?) Polyani.

Nisbet / Polyani argued that 19th century laissez faire wasn't the self organised market outcome it was billed as by mainstream classical liberal political economists and their kin. Both noted the great advances made by the central state in the period and saw the "laisser faire" system as a state imposed plan. It was a kind of liberal imposed utopia not a spontaneous order per se.

For example the French Revolutionary state wanted to ban the old trade guilds. When a couple of the leading guilds wished to reincorporate themselves as "general labour organisations", presumably a forerunner of unionism, the regime banned that too. They maintained a ban on all worker combinations until (I believe) the 1880s. In a sense this is not a free market, but atomisation by decree.

Polyani went on to support the the Chesterton / Belloc (both ex-UK Liberal Party members) 'distributist' movement, although admittedly a generation later. But like his old former fellow Austrian free market liberal friend F A Hayek he saw the "omnicompetent state" as the real enemy.

Not all free market classical liberal political economists were blinded by real or imagined 19th century laisser faire. I noted in reading "The Political Economy of War" by the former editor of "The Economist", F.W. Hirst, a hardline individualist who was profiled once on this blog, that he saw clearly and charted the growth of the military state during the 19th century.

There are some differences from what I can tell between Pernoud and Nisbet's treatment of the great absolutist monarchies and the development of "the free market". Pernoud sees (reminds me of the marxists) a kind of bourgeois - absolutist alliance. Nisbet sees the Absolutists driving the whole process but with business just making do in the space the absolutists bulldozed flat in their "Federal Bulldozer" style removal of all the intermediate institutions of family, village, region, guild etc that Nisbet sees as the real support infrastructure for individual freedom.

The Nisbet / Polyani line of reasoning would seem to have some challenges, at least, for some kinds of limited government libertarians, but my guess is that anarcho-capitalists with their conception of competing legal systems would have less trouble with it. Presumably a state monopoly legal system like all monopolies favours a selected class / caste.




Steven Horwitz - 7/26/2007

I think David Hart has it right Gus - it's about nationalism for many. I do think there are others who genuinely believe that extremist Islam is a threat to Western civilization (and hence freedom) and must be stopped militarily. How exactly that ties to Iraq isn't so clear, even if one believes Iraq has some weak link to Al Queda. How, even aside from principle, any cost-benefit analysis can vindicate what the US is doing over there is beyond me.

Bill W is also right in noting that the majority of libertarians, at least academic ones, probably see property in your second way (I know I do), but that this view is orthogonal to their support or opposition to the war.

BTW, Barnett's view of property is, in my reading, more like the second, hence there's one piece of counter-evidence to your hypothesis.


Keith Halderman - 7/26/2007

Bill Woolsey talks about, and I can not quite tell if he is being sarcastic here, Muslims "committed to enforcing Sharia law on all of us and that includes stoning homosexuals, keeping women in the home, outlawing alcohol, banning interest, etc., etc. Massive violations of individual liberty." I think it is very important to acknowledge that these people do exist, they are growing stronger as well as more numerous, and that they are acting on their beliefs, which includes the right to kill anyone who disagrees with them. However, Saddam Hussein was not one of these people. In fact he was their mortal enemy which makes the American invasion of Iraq doubly stupid.


Gus diZerega - 7/26/2007

My comment mostly is to Anthony Gregory. Nowhere do I reduce the issue to character - but anyone who finds a way to look the other way on torture - well, yes, there is a character issue involved.

Rummel, despite his excellent work on the democracy and war issue, seems to have utterly missed a crucial point that he agrees with abstractly - that democracies cannot be constructed. I have challenged him on that point, and (as I remember), he accused me of being a dogmatic libertarian. On that issue I guess I am.

In Rummel's case I think his error involves having become so attached to the core truth of his discovery that he underestimates what it takes for a society to become democratic. This is a blindness, but a common enough one.

What I cannot understand is the blindness of libertarians and classical liberals such as Barnett who still support this war.


Gus diZerega - 7/26/2007

And that is what perplexes me. Nationalism is about as bug a violation of classical liberal/libertarian/liberal principles as we can get. Yet so many abandoned those principles so quickly. And in many cases still have abandoned them. It is strange and I honestly don't really get it.


Gus diZerega - 7/25/2007

Seems to me you missed the point. That is why i used the animal example. A bundle approach CAN lead to a despotic perspective - but it need not. The position described by Balckstone always does.

I suggest reading the distinction I gave again...


William J. Stepp - 7/25/2007

First, private property is something over which I exercise control. If it is all mine my control is total.

...

Second, private property is a bundle of discrete rights. Some rights can be sold or rented without denying other unsold and unrented rights. When we think of private property in this way it is not so much a thing as it is a field of possible relationships with others and (potentially) with what is considered property.


This is a distinction without a difference, as George Will would say.
The first view of property implies the second, just like the laws of arithmetic imply algebra with the addition of symbolic operators.

If you discover minerals under your property, you have the right to sell the right to mine them. This doesn't mean you surrender the right to your home and other rights in your homestead.

When we think of private property in this way it is not so much a thing as it is a field of possible relationships with others and (potentially) with what is considered property.

But so is the first view, as it means you exclude the world from any of your bundle of rights. You always retain the right to sell any of the bundle; in your first use, their existence is just unstated, but it's there all the same. If you deny this, then it's not property in a way libertarians understand it, which is what number two makes explicit.

Contrary to your assertion, property in the second sense does come with boundaries. Minerals, for example, have boundaries.

Regarding animal rights, given that people have a right to kill and consume animals, they certainly have a right to torture them. That doesn't mean they should or they do (except in rare cases). And you or anyone else has a right to remonstrate against and ostracize an animal torturer; to boycott him, or use any other legal means to oppose him.

Given the incorrect distinction between the two types of property, the last part is also incorrect.


Anthony Gregory - 7/25/2007

Yes. Nationalism is the worst of all forms of collectivism, and yet some libertarians adhere to it. It's especially bad in America, where we have this founding mythology that somehow renders "our" government the embodiment of liberty itself.


David M. Hart - 7/25/2007

As a foreign national who has visited the US repeatedly over the past 30 years and has lived here twice, most recently arriving with my family just before 9/11, I would say the explanation is a bit simpler. It is clear to me that over the past 6 years nationalism has trumped liberty once again. When faced with a choice of defending liberty or rallying around the flag a majority of Americans and unfortunately too many libertarians have opted for the latter. Tribalism once again trumps a sense of justice towards all; nationalism takes priority over a belief in limited government and peace; the patriotic nonsense people were taught in their high school history textbooks replaces any critical view of the acts the "global hegemon" over the past 50-100 years. The answer does not lie in arcane disputes over the nature of property rights. Too many people love "their" state more than they do liberty and justice. It is simple as that.


Jeff Riggenbach - 7/25/2007

Bill Woolsey writes that he figures the libertarian "Bush devotees believe that nearly all of those Muslims are committed to enforcing Sharia law on all of us and that includes stoning homosexuals, keeping
women in the home, outlawing alchol, banning interest, etc., etc. Massive violations of individual liberty. Until we adopt their system, they will kill us with suicide bombings. We must defeat them. We must do what it takes to stop the terrorists. Bush is doing his best. The Democrats are fighthing him at every turn just so they can return to power. How dare you support them?"

Bill asks:

"Why is this so hard to see?"

Perhaps because it's difficult to believe any sane adult could be so crazed by irrational fears?

JR


Jeff Riggenbach - 7/25/2007

Gus diZerega wrote:

"I think libertarian and classical liberal ideology appeals to two very different kinds of people, those who support liberty because people should be free to live their lives as they wish so long as they don’t aggress on others, and those who want to be free to live their lives as they wish."

Bill Woolsey commented:

"Just about all libertarians purport to favor the 'principled' approach, though many of us believe that this kind of principle must be justified, with great debate over the proper justification. I just want to be free...maybe some say that, but it isn't too common."

For the record, I say that. I evolved into a libertarian because I want to be free. I came to realize in time that the most effective and lasting way to accomplish that goal was to accept equal liberty for others - something along the lines of Max Stirner's "unions of egoists."

JR


Anthony Gregory - 7/25/2007

The warmongers go back and forth between nationalism and internationalism. Sometimes they claim Americans must be taxed and killed to support liberty abroad; sometimes they say that foreigners must be killed to protect American freedoms. It's all situational.


Bill Woolsey - 7/25/2007

I don't see much value in this approach.

I don't believe that the principled vs. selfish approach is helpful. (I favor the principle of equal liberty for all vs. I want to be free to do what I want.)

And I don't think there is any connection between that division and adopting the bundle conception of property rights.

Just about all libertarians purport to favor the "principled" approach, though many of us believe that this kind of principle must be justified, with great debate over the proper justification. I just want to be free...maybe some say that, but it isn't too common.

So, it is almost everyone, Bush bashers and devotees alike, on the "principled" side of that debate.

As for the bundle of rights version of property, I suspect there are some libertarians who are unaware of this. But I suspect it is no libertarian lawyers (like Barnett) and next to no libertarian economists. I think the notion that believing in a bundle of rights makes one inclined to believe that some rights remain with the community at large...well, I don't think that is correct. That is, what I would count as property rights absolutists often understand the bundle concept--buying and selling easements and the like. This is very important in regulatory takings... But they aren't especially inclined to think that the voters own some of these rights. Economists who favor some kind of regulations (perhaps for animal welfare) may well describe this in terms of a bundle of rights. But it isn't understanding the bundle concept that is at the heart of the dispute.

Perhaps, of course, I have the argument all wrong. Perhaps it is the Bush supporters who support equal liberty as a principle (wanting to free the foreigners) and who support the bundle of rights conception of property (believing that all sorts of sticks in the bundle belong to the community.) It is the libertarian Bush bashers who care only for their own liberty (let the Iraqis suffer under Saddam) and who see the excerise of the voters' property rights by Bush, their agent, naively as a violation of rights that are not in their own bundle.

Is that it?

I think that the Bush devotees believe that nearly all of those Muslims are committed to enforcing Sharia law on all of us and that includes stoning homosexuals, keeping
women in the home, outlawing alchol, banning interest, etc., etc. Massive violations of individual liberty. Until we adopt their system, they will kill us with suicide bombings. We must defeat them. We must do what it takes to stop the terrorists. Bush is doing his best. The Democrats are fighthing him at every turn just so they can return to power. How dare you support them?

Something like that.

Why is this so hard to see?


Anthony Gregory - 7/25/2007

Is it always a weakness of character? Your friend RJ Rummel is a pro-war "freedomist," and seems to support war on the basis of the democratic peace theory that you also adhere to. In his case, it seems to be a combination of utilitarian ethics and the belief that the US can effectively increase liberty abroad, on balance, neither of which I agree with.