Libertarianism Simplified: the Three Proper Powers of Government
In your basic Austrian style Libertarianism Government only has three proper functions: External Defense, Internal Policing, and Enforcement of Contracts.
Or we could simplify all that as: Protection of Private Property, Protection of Private Property, and Protection of Private Property.
It really is that simple, at least once you define private beliefs and personal freedom as property. And property does mean “pertaining to me, my own”. A neat circle.
“Middle English propre proper, own, from Anglo-French, from Latin proprius own”
“Amour propre” French for “love of self”
In other words, libertarianism = selfishness.
Monopolization of property would occur as well. Don’t forget anarchists were originally called “libertarians” in the 19th century and called property rights statism.
I would call them “propertarians”. The property owner is god and everybody else sucks. The real problem occurs when you have a bunch of angry starving people who don’t have access to the property. Nazism and Communism doesn’t sound so bad.
The challenge for libertarians has been the definition of private property. Saying we defend it without defining it is an incomplete statement that allows the audience to assume his concept of private property is what the speaker refers to. This is a cute act of suggestion that inspires moral affiliation, but it is not sufficient for representation as the basis for law that provides non discretionary decidability in matters of conflict.
Rothbardians define property with the ethics of pastoralists and the ghetto: inter subjectively verifiable property. These are the low trust ethics of the steppe, levant, and medieval ghetto.
If we look at high trust societies instead, they assert property rights not only to physical property, but to all property that causes conflict and retaliation for the imposition of costs.
So humans demonstrate that they treat as their property all that they have expended resources to obtain with the expectation of a monopoly of control(private), fruits from(shareholder property), and prevention from consumption (commons).
We agree to enforce retaliation or restitution against impositions against all of those forms of property.
But why? Because the most scarce and rewarding good is cooperation. We evolve moral intuitions, moral and ethical rules, manners, laws and traditions to preserve the value of cooperation.
Property rights then represent a warranty by the group members of those forms of property that one has acquired or invested in or refrained from the consumption of, in order to preserve the incentive to cooperate and the disproportionate rewards of cooperation, including the rewards from the production of commons- property rights being the first commons.
The origin of property preceded cooperation. The origin of morality followed cooperation. The origin of rights evolved from morality. Law evolved from the need for uniform application of restitution for impositions upon property.
Property rights did not evolve from the scarcity of goods but from the gradual atomization of the family in the increasingly individualistic division of labor.
So while libertarianism contains comforting memes, it is predicated on a number of half truths and falsehoods.
The problem we face is the preservation of the disproportionate rewards of cooperation. Property rights – insuring one another – are the means by which we do so.
As such, the scope of property necessary for an anarchic polity is that which preserves the will to cooperate.
And as far as we know, that is a high trust requirement.
The Propertarian institute
You were in “comment moderation” when I logged in this morning. After this, you are free to comment anywhere on AB.
Libertarianism is the apotheosis of solipsism.
Chinese warlords and landlords were the epitome of the libertarian, and what Mao gave them they earned.
Maintain “external defense” is libertarian play to Birchers and pentagon troughers. Those MRAP, if they take the curves slowly, are good for enforcing contracts on starving peasants.
The depredations of Stalin and Mao are rationalized by libertarian “sensitivities”.
Theory = shmeory. Economics can seem simple — economies are infinitely complex. Sweet water economists don’t do their due diligence — apply the same rules everywhere; don’t even have to know what country they are in.
Got to take apart every individual situation door jamb by door jamb — individually. Only micro economics counts — macro is out (except for giving us general concepts to keep an eye out for).
Did macro theory fail us in the crisis?
Author: Noah Smith
Thanks Curt, it will take time to digest all that and my response will probably be oblique and take the form of expanding and refining my claims in light of yours without necessarily taking them on one by one. But thanks for the input.
Jerry as to “Libertarianism equals selfishness”. Well one strand of Libertarianism, Randian Objectivists seem to have taken that claim head on and embraced it. After all Rand’s main ‘philosophical’ work is The Virtue of Selfishness.
But I think others would use less loaded terms and identify Libertarianism with Autonomy and Free Contract. And allow that Contract can include Charity, that you can be a Free Marketeer without requiring that every contractual relationship balance out. Just that any such imbalances be the result of free and informed choice.
Ilsm. My model/claim is deliberately simplified and told from the perspective of the Libertarian as self-imagined as an inhabitant of an Austrian mountain village. It totally ignores the issues of class and brigandage. You might say that political, political economics, and political violence are what happens when libertarians encounter something I like to call “reality”.
That is “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Live Free or Die” is all well and good until you are squashed dead road kill.
Why do you hate private property? Will you advocate weakening our national defense as that in part protects private property? Will you advocate, as do anarchists, the weakening or abolition of internal police powers because those in part protect private property? Will you promote the impairment of contracts because their enforcement in part protects private property?
Is it only the private property of others that you hate -or have you renounced the concept and dispossessed yourself of all property as an example to your readers?
Seems Chris Matthews was onto something when asking: “what’s the difference between a Democrat and a Socialist?” As follow-up he ought to ask Dem leadership -what’s the difference between a Democrat and an Anarchist, a Communist, etc? Then we might get some real thinking going on just what it is that Democrats believe to be right and true.
Instead of a post lambasting those silly libertarians for supposedly worshiping private property to the exclusion of all else, one might ask why protection of private property is important in a free society. On the other hand, If you hate private property, you just might be a ….
Curt I have come at all of this based on my training many years ago as a historian with a special interest in early society and especially early Medieval European society and/or Indo-European society. So keep that in mind when I tell you that I find the following backwards, not conceptually but historically. I see the line of development in a much different sequence.
“The origin of property preceded cooperation. The origin of morality followed cooperation. The origin of rights evolved from morality. Law evolved from the need for uniform application of restitution for impositions upon property. ”
In particular I see ‘property’ as one of the last links in the chain, especially the concept of property in land, and that it was this development or property rights that separated libertarianism (of the type I discuss) from a much older conservatism. With property as now understood only one aspect of that which is being conserved but which is at best concentric with the other aspects and not core to them. Depending on how this tread goes I’ll either develop that here or start a new post.
MIke you ask:
“Why do you hate private property?”
Answer simple. I don’t. Why do you jump to the conclusion that I do?
I should point out that I made no claims that libertarians worshiped private property or even that it would be morally bad if they did. On the other hand you seem eager to jump in defense of “That Old Time Religion”.
So once you get done burning your man of straw perhaps you can present your own analysis of what is really important to libertarians beyond private property and the sanctity of contract. Rather than launch into ad homs maybe you could bring forth exactly what aspect of this that I am actually missing. Because frankly to this point you seem to be doubling down.
The Rage. I am not ignoring your argument, which I find interesting and even compelling. But I think that few capital L Libertarians of the American variety would identify at all with the kind of Anarcho-Libertarians that you put in opposition to Propertarians.
If you like we could agree that most ‘Libertarians’ are actually ‘Propertarians’, in fact that is not a bad summation of my bald thesis in the post.
I live in NH, there are a fair number of libertarians displaying their “don’t tread on me” flags.
There is reason the flag is yeller!
I smurk by each car/house with one.
“Will you advocate weakening our national defense as that in part protects private property?”
If you think the pentagon trillion a year in waste is to protect property outside the vague image of Murikan imperial prerogs (aka multinational corps) around the world.
I hold the deed of property to a bridge.
The national guard was the libertarian “defense of property” as wobbled by the federalsist, while Dredd Scott improved on property dogma.
Mike I actually agree with Libertarians that a large part of our national defense is designed to protect personal property. Just that most of us don’t have personal property overseas or even that much of a property interest in securing other people’s property overseas. On the other hand as Ilsm points out the wealthy who own multi-national corporations certainly do have those property interests. Which explains why in large part why we have such massive force projection capability.
It is worth pondering why the Constitution explicitly PROHIBITS funding for a Standing Army and limits any appropriations for the Army to two years at a time while the same section MANDATES that we maintain a permanent Navy. And the answer is pretty clear. The U.S. is so situated that it needs a Navy for defense but mostly only needs an army for offense.
I am ex-Navy from a Navy family so I am naturally prejudiced a bit. But I think the Founding Fathers were on to something there.
Since 1898 our purpose has explicitly been to go elsewhere and steal other peoples’ stuff, using the Navy, Marines, and Army; the Air Force is a johnny come lately and mostly never occupies territory. Sugar from Cuba, fruit from Honduras and Guatemala, military bases and local produce from the Phillipines, places to test bombs and missiles in the Marshalls, on and on and on, such that Tom Lehrer wrote songs mocking it and General Smedley Butler wrote a book about it before writing a book about how bankers (property owners!) tried to overthrow FDR by fomenting a coup (by unpropertied rapscallions).
Libertarianism is simply a fantasyland diversion for eccentrics, like birdwatching or collecting beanie babies, that allows one to pretend moral superiority while participating in a system that is explicitly and overtly based on theft and plunder and rationalized by branding it in the public consciousness as “freedom.” It is ahistorical, it never examines its prior assumptions or biases, and like the worst of communists it can never be falsified by experiment-it can’t fail, it can only be failed.
Libertarianism is first and foremost a delusion useful to the wealth elites to prevent reform of capitalism (as FDR did), in a trajectory arcing towards periodic violent uprising.
It’s a popular flavor of philosophy here in Central TX. Especially the tech millionaires who are wrecking Austin.
The thing I find surprisingly consistent about them is how often the most ardently defended liberty is the Right To Exclude. Domain over ones property most critically includes the right to keep people off it. For any damn reason you like including and in particular a stupid or racist one.
I would submit that this critical right to exclude actually infects and undermines whatever might have become of the movement itself. In evidence I offer the popular meetups.com social networking site. For this part of the country if you look under “movements and politics” meetups there are 1 or 2 ordinary democratic and republican meetups. But there are 8 different libertarian groups.
Some might say this speaks to the vitality of the movement and its philosophy. Maybe so. But after 20 years in TX I suspect it’s quite a bit more likely that 8 groups came about because (at least) 8 libertarians said “No I’m not going if (s)he is, screw it we’re starting a new group”. The right to exclude it’s a big deal with these folks.
For years my naval service “friends” have reminded me the naval service is “maintained” while the military services (had to add an AF) are “raised”.
Of course, the concept of authorization bill obviates any dislocation in the troughs.
Amateur Socialist the image I am working with would see Libertarians as Bubbles floating through the air bouncing off each other autonomously while only attaching through Contract into pairs or groups or clusters but always always retaining the boundary.
On the other hand Conservatives would be bound to the ground as a series of concentric and overlapping Circles in tight and ideally permanent relation to each other and attached by Tradition. But also of course maintain all the boundaries of every circle they are embedded in.
I don’t know exactly how that intersects (see what I did there?) with your concept of exclusion. But at first glance exclusion would be a feature of either even as the Conservative is more bound than the free floating Libertarian.
A liberal considers private property to be a government service. It is necessary for building national wealth and for individual happiness, but it has to be paid for. Most wealth is in the form of shares of government chartered collectives, government controlled real (“real” from “royal”) estate, government issued currency or government protected intellectual property. If someone ever starts arguing “It’s my money”, ask them to look at it. Odds are it has the government’s name all over it.
If you think about it, the definition of a government is something that implements private property whether by maintaining a complex legal and contract law system, police force and army, or by just providing some dispute resolution system as in the Iliad where Helen was the property in question.
Libertarians have a rather mystical attitude towards private property. They seem to have chosen one particular model of it and consider that particular set of choices to be sacrosanct, blessed by their gods. They completely ignore the issue of how to pay for it. Governments invent all sorts of private property: real estate, slaves, women (one cut down from slaves historically), corporations, patents, trademarks, electromagnetic spectrum and so on. That list is mutable and should serve societal purposes.
Kaleberg well I don’t see it that way, mostly because it distorts the . actual history of institutions.
For one thing the ‘real’ in ‘real estate’ does not in fact derive from ‘royal’ the former stems from Latin ‘realis’ ultimately from ‘re’ thing while royal (along with Sp. ‘real’) from Latin ‘regalis’ from ‘rex, regis’ king. There is indeed the concept in English law that all property rights ultimately derive from the King. However although having the authority of some nine hundred years of legal precedent is in my opinion (based on actual study in Grad school) historically wrong. And to my knowledge is not shared in any event by the law in any other European country.
I don’t know that liberalism in either its English or American sense has any firm theory about what government is beyond the idea that it is rooted in and derived from the consent of the people. And justified in utilitarian terms. But on the whole I would say it has an ambivalent relation to private property, for example it is generally quite open to taxation of private property for pubic purposes or at the extreme to the use of such things as eminent domain to take property outright.
So I would say that the liberal attitude towards private property is basically a utilitarian one, people are more productive and happier overall if they can maintain the means of production in their own hands and have some right to privacy in their homes and security in their goods.
John Adams and fellow rebels were out to get the rex off their backs.
While FDR is credited, Lincoln said ‘labor is prior to capital’.
So, aside from a cheap shot at libertarians, your OP was pointless, what a surprise. You would not weaken any of those three powers of government, and in fact you favor private property. You just might be a libertarian.
As to your other response, I mostly agree. In addition to your comments the Navy was not thought a direct threat to security of a free state, while a standing army was thought as such. It is also more difficult to raise a Navy on short notice should the need arise.
However in addition to defense of the homeland, the Navy is also useful as an extension of force (“shores of Triploi”) in protecting commerce (which entails private property while being essential to the prosperity of the nation as a whole).
Mike you don’t have to be against private property to think that the role of government is broader than just protecting it.
I support progressive taxation and the welfare state. I would return the former to 50s era rates and move the latter towards Scandinavian Socialist Hellhole levels. And I am against reckless resort to military force projection as a first option. These are not small distinctions.
It wasn’t (just) a cheap shot at Libertarians. It was to highlight that what many people see as conflicting positions, for example a strong military and the idea that ‘taxation is theft’, or that people have an inalienable right to defend their property and privacy and yet that we still need a powerful and if necessary intrusive police force are in fact reconcilable if you start from a position that one) valorizes private property above all and two) understands that other people might want to share/steal your property.
That is not ALL “taxation is theft”. Some of it is just necessary protection money to keep your shit safe.
Just to throw some gas on the fire.
A further apparent conflict is between a general Libertarian belief in individual autonomy and the willingness of some Libertarians (cough, cough Rand cough Paul) to accept restrictions to women’s freedom to choose their own fertility options via birth control and/or abortion.
That reconciles itself simply too: Family and Marriage are Property relations controlled by the Property Owner the Father and Husband. My wife and my kids and my stuff are all protected behind my fence by my guns. But somebody has to be King of the Castle. Amirite?
Boom. Patriarchal Libertarianism. Whatever you think of it (and I don’t think much in its favor) it certainly has the virtue of intellectual consistency. Once you identify ‘family’ and ‘property’.
Property over people. Absolutely counter Old Testament, usury as sin implies people before property.
Southern libertarians: people are a class of property.
Abraham Lincoln: people are superior to capital.
Libertarians like conservatives are reaching for a justification from avarice and plundering people.
I read somewhere (maybe David Graeber’s “Debt”) that our property law originated with Roman property law, where the head of the household had authority over everyone there, family members and usually slaves. So property did include people, and did include family.
Kenya provided scientists to compare the success of two different groups of people with a gene linked to ADD (attention deficit disorder): hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. Among hunter-gathers, people with the ADD gene were better nourished. Among agriculturalists, the ADD gene was correlated with poorer than average nutrition.
Our society evolves much faster than our genetics. I imagine there was w time when libertarian attitudes were adaptive traits that helped humanity to survive. In the modern world, this is no longer the case. Libertarianism is just the mildest form of autism. But the nature of autism is that the autistic has a hard time understanding how other people’s brains work. It’s no use arguing with libertarians. Like alcoholics, they have a disease that tells them they don’t have a disease. If they suffered the same consequences as alcoholics some would recover. But society makes them wealthy bankers at Goldman and Citi.
Like with all our outdated mal-adaptive genetic traits, it is our job to drive the evolution of society in a way that limits the damage that libertarian genes cause.
Your response at 12:53 is at least a start of worthwhile discussion, but you gloss over the reality that each of the three proper powers of government from your OP do a whole lot more than simply protect an individual’s property. They allow the nation as a whole to prosper (at least that is the libertarian argument). Libertarians also would argue that welfare state policies taken too far will cause a decrease in prosperity for the nation as a whole. You may not agree with such arguments, but to pretend that the only concern to a libertarian is his/her private property is sophomoric at best.
Libertarians generally agree with you on use of force in foreign affairs, that is why they are hated by the neo-cons.
Libertarians are indeed split on abortion (as is the country), but I do not think there is any push by libertarians to restrict access to birth control.
Intrusive police forces are necessary for the war on drugs (was Raich a libertarian or a liberal decision -be honest!), but not to keep people from stealing other people’s stuff.
Mike B, in a formal sense and in some European countries our system of law originated in the Roman law, at least the Roman law as formulated and compiled by the Emperor Justinian in the Fifth (or Sixth?) Century. But this was not true of English law nor really of Germanic laws generally or indeed of Roman law under the Republic.
That is none of English or other Germanic law codes as they existed when family structures or family law developed endorse the idea that the householder actually had absolute property rights over all individuals in the family or the extended family that included servants and slaves.
Under Roman law it was perfectly legal for the heads of households to put their children or slaves to death. You will find nothing like this in English law or really anywhere on the continent even among those countries which did formally ‘Receive’ Roman law.
On the other hand the power of the head of household over the entire ‘familia’ was something the different systems held in common and the more strict Roman version can be seen as an offshoot from an ancestral root. Which rather confusing got merged back into emerging national law in the early middle ages.
Which is maybe a convoluted and confusing way of saying that I don’t believe the immediate origin of Libertarianism is in Roman property law as such.
Mike H. Well maybe we just disagree at the margins.
Many perhaps most Libertarians believe that maximal prosperity is a natural result of free persons operating in a free market with the intent of maximizing their own interests making the role of the government simply to be the referee of freely entered upon contracts. I doubt you would find any endorsing the idea that the government was the guarantor of prosperity as such. Certainly they would be adverse to any idea that the government should ensure equitable or equal outcomes.
As to police and military powers I suggest that the purer sort of Libertarians see those as essentially contractual and ultimately between the persons who fund those powers and their contractors. You see this a lot in the proposals that people who don’t own property and so don’t pay property tax should not have the right to vote.
I just don’t see that the PHILOSOPHY of Libertarianism allows that government has any role over and above the limited ones granted to it by free property owners,
You are getting at the heart of the matter when you say “maximal”. One of the chief differences between libertarian and liberal thought is that libertarians generally reject the notion that government programs will outperform the prosperity that free persons operating in a free market will produce. They see excessive meddling in markets as detracting from maximal output and so ultimately leading to less prosperity overall.
Moreover, government should set the rules and act as referee, but to the degree government assumes the role of player (provider of programs) it loses its ability to be an unbiased referee. And when the Federal government takes on the role of provider, there is no higher government to which an aggrieved person can appeal so that the federal government becomes rule maker, player, and referee while wielding the power to compel everyone to play their game. But just as no man should be the judge of his own case, no government should either, and so we ought to avoid as much as possible the highest level of government being a player/provider or services. The fact that government cannot avoid being a player in some regards (national defense for one) does not support the notion that government being a player/provider is generally sound policy.
Lastly the government ought to seek equity by way of the rule setting process, not through its role as referee which must be unbiased. And in setting the rules of the game it should take care not to rig the game to the extent that maximal output is restricted.
Government of, by, and for the owners. Hear, hear!
Mike Hansberry, that sounds like a great system for medieval Europe. Modern geo/political systems, like the U.S.ofA., are a bit more complex than the standard and simplistic libertarian dream can cope with. Is there any pure libertarian any where other than in an Ayn Rand story? For most right wing and libertarian ideologues the better description of belief would be, government activity that helps me is good. Otherwise government activity should be limited to what is best for me.
Bruce, Who cares what a libertarian thinks or what an exact definition of libertarian might be? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t recall the lord libertarian occurring in the U.S. Constitution. If Rand Paul had not passed his certifications to practice medicine would that disqualify the the certification system since it would impinge upon everyone’s right to practice a profession that they may choose? Discussions of the details or the legitimacy of libertarian ideas would be better given over to Randian blogs where adolescent boys can argue to their hearts content.
Jack call it trolling the trolls.
On almost every post I put up I get glibertarians give me simplistic “Don’t you know —” ‘truisms’. I like to challenge these people to examine their own assumptions more deeply.
“free persons operating in a free market”.
All persons are not free, ever. While “free markets” were myth everywhere all times even in Adam Smith’s Lowland Scotland.
“degree government assumes the role of player (provider of programs) it loses its ability to be an unbiased referee”
Myth is not knowledge.
If government “role as referee which must be unbiased.” were required for the social contract it would be like being “back in the garden”.
Your problem is the rules you want include property over people.
All Ayn Rand level fiction.
Why should government be unbiased? It’s purpose is to protect the people.
Who needs first principles when we got “complexity” and men like Bruce and Jack to lead us?
Did you ever wonder why Justice is blind folded? Nah, I didn’t think so.
You think justice is blindfolded?
Do you always answer a question with a question? Next time, try a statement.