A Spontaneous Order

A Spontaneous Order: Libertarianism

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The Purpose of Property Norms

Because the desire for many resources exceeds their availability, there exists potential for violent interpersonal conflict to emerge over how they are to be employed. To address this issue, property norms are established to provide an objective basis for reconciliation. Without such norms, the alternative would be destructive interpersonal conflict where presumably “might makes right” would reign as the social paradigm. Although there exist many variations of property norms, the purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate why any valid norm must be logically compatible with private property and its libertarian implications. Hoppe expounds upon the function of property norms in general:

To develop the concept of property, it is necessary for [economic] goods to be scarce, so that conflicts over the use of these goods can possibly arise. It is the function of property rights to avoid such possible clashes over the use of scarce resources by assigning rights of exclusive ownership. Property is thus a normative concept: a concept designed to make a conflict-free interaction possible by stipulating mutually binding rules of conduct (norms) regarding scarce resources. [1]


The Nature of the Libertarian/Private Property Ethic

The Libertarian Ethic (aka the Private Property Ethic) holds that all legitimate rights are derived from property rights. The most fundamental of which concerns one’s relationship to his own physical body i.e., that he and he alone has an exclusive claim to it. This is commonly referred to as “the principle of self-ownership.”

To own something means to have final say over its employment or use, provided that such employment does not entail the initiation of uninvited physical interference with another person’s body or their justly-acquired property. Simply put, only the owner(s) of something have the exclusive right to use it; they are likewise justified in resisting demands made on their property by others.

From the concept of property rights, one may derive the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP), which states that no one may justifiably initiate uninvited physical force against another person’s body or property, or make threats thereof. Thus, when “aggression” is referenced in this work it will be referring to the uninvited initiation of physical interference with one’s person or property (or threats thereof).

The only two legitimate methods of acquiring property, according to the Libertarian Ethic, are original appropriation and voluntary exchange. Original appropriation simply entails that the first claimant and user of a previously unowned good found in nature is the rightful owner of said good. Put differently, if one mixes his labor with an unowned good and claims it as his own, then he would become this good’s rightful owner.

It is critical that this “mixing of labor” criterion is met. Asserting that a mere verbal declaration would suffice in obtaining property rights over any good would yield a host of logical and practical problems. More specifically, such “mixing of labor” for the sake of “original appropriation” may include the transformation, possession, and/or embordering of a scarce good.

The second just means of acquiring property is through voluntary exchange. Voluntary exchange is a derivative of “original appropriation” in that economic (aka scarce) goods must be captured and appropriated before they can be traded or given away. Hoppe provides a cogent summary for the Libertarian Ethic:

Unlike bodies, which are never ‘unowned’ but always have a natural owner, all other scarce resources can indeed be unowned. This is the case as long as they remain in their natural state, unused by anyone. They only become someone’s property once they are treated as scarce means, that is, as soon as they are occupied in some objective borders and put to some specific use by someone. This act of acquiring previously unowned resources is called ‘original appropriation.’ Once unowned resources are appropriated it becomes an aggression to uninvitedly change their physical characteristics or to restrict the owner’s range of uses to which he can put these resources, as long as a particular use does not affect the physical characteristics of anyone else’s property—just as in the case of bodies. Only in the course of a contractual relationship, i.e., when the natural owner of a scarce means explicitly agrees, is it possible for someone else to utilize and change previously acquired things. And only if the original or previous owner deliberately transfers his property title to someone else, either in exchange for something or as a free gift, can this other person himself become the owner of such things. Unlike bodies, though, which for the same “natural” reason can never be unowned and also can never be parted with by the natural owner completely but only be ‘lent out’ as long as the owners’ agreement lasts, naturally all other scarce resources can be ‘alienated’ and a property title for them can be relinquished once and for all. [2]

Generous use of the term “rights” has been made in this chapter. Prior to moving forward, it would behoove us to examine what exactly rights are and what they entail. For this task, I will take advantage of the insight provided by Murray Rothbard:

When we say that one has the right to do certain things we mean this and only this, that it would be immoral for another, alone or in combination, to stop him from doing this by the use of physical force or the threat thereof. We do not mean that any use a man makes of his property within the limits set forth is necessarily a moral use. [3]

It is important to expand upon the above definition in a few important ways. Rights provide a framework for the justification of force. To say one has a right against being coerced unjustly or being murdered implies that the right is defensible by one’s own use of force. In other words, if one’s rights are violated, then the use of physical force, or the threat thereof, may be justifiably employed against the perpetrator. Such measures may be used for either defending those rights or for seeking retribution/restitution for their violation. To be clear, this is not to say that physical force, or the threat thereof, must be used; it is simply saying that such force would be justified. This force would be responsive, not initiatory, and hence satisfies the non-aggression principle. In the future chapters of this book, there will be discussion regarding some non-violent means by which criminal behavior may be effectively combated, but for now the scope of this discussion will be limited to identifying what the Libertarian Ethic is, how it may be rationally justified, and what rights it entails.

Finally, the above definition of rights should not be misconstrued so as to think that any breach of “morality” warrants the use of physical force. For instance, if a man promises his girlfriend that he will take her to the movies on Saturday night, and then reneges on this promise in order to go out with her best friend, this act may be immoral. However, if in response his girlfriend slashes his tires, then she would be guilty of violating his property rights despite his recent unsavory act. It is important to note the greater specificity of a discussion on “rights” as compared to “morals.” All too often the topics are confused and this confusion has been used to justify assaulting others for a great many “victimless crimes.”

So to be clear, from this point forward, I will be speaking in terms of “rights” and not the greater scope of “morals.” The actions of others may offend our moral code, however we must determine which of these actions warrant physical force and which of them are just aesthetically displeasing.


The Criteria for Moral Agency

How do we determine to whom/what the Libertarian Ethic applies? More specifically, what makes someone or something a “moral agent?” Perhaps the ability to engage in discourse is the right criterion? Hoppe suggests:

…[O]nly if both parties to a conflict are capable of engaging in argumentation with one another can one speak of a moral problem and is the question of whether or not there exists a solution meaningful. Only if Friday, regardless of his physical appearance (i.e., whether he looks like a man or like a gorilla), is capable of argumentation (even if he has shown himself to be so capable only once), can he be deemed rational and does the question whether or not a correct solution to the problem of social order exist make sense… Only if this other entity can in principle pause in his activity, whatever it might be, step back so to speak, and say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to something one has said, do we owe this entity an answer and, accordingly, can we possibly claim that our answer is the correct one for both parties involved in a conflict. [4]

In other words, the Libertarian Ethic applies to beings capable of argumentation or of propositional exchange (discourse). However, Hoppe reasons that if a being is not capable of argumentation, then whether or not said being is capable of recognizing the rights of others cannot be known with certainty. (It is important to clarify that such capacity to communicate a proposal or to argue is not limited to verbal communication. Any form of communication would suffice and may theoretically range from physical gestures, to telepathy, to drawings…etc.) For rights to exist between two or more beings, there needs to exist a certain degree of reciprocity. This must entail the ability to both recognize and deliberately respect the other’s right to his own body and property. Such ability is the minimum criterion for one to be considered a moral-agent.

To say that a moral agent (e.g. a mentally healthy adult human) must not aggress against a non-moral agent (e.g. a wasp) would be to put the non-moral agent in a position of moral superiority over the moral agent. For instance, the moral agent is capable of consciously respecting the NAP in regards to this non-moral agent. In contrast, the non-moral agent is incapable of deliberately respecting the NAP, and will be able to act outside its confines without being said to have violated the moral agent’s rights, or to have committed an unethical act. The reason this non-moral agent could not be held ethically accountable for such actions is that, being such, it would have no capacity to conceptualize the NAP let alone deliberately abide by it.

This has great implications in regards to so called “animal rights.” Really, it would be more appropriate to recognize that rights are only applicable to those beings which satisfy the minimum criterion for moral agency listed above. Which animals, if any, are “moral agents”, I will leave to the zoologist.

In conclusion, the Libertarian Ethic is not necessarily limited to humans, but applies to all moral agents be they human, extra-terrestrial, or otherwise.


Philosophical Groundwork

Some additional groundwork is needed before diving into the justifications of the Libertarian Ethic. Let us first examine what it means for an ethic or right to be “justified.” First, it must be “universalizable” or consistent. That is to say, for something to be a valid or justified ethic, it must apply to all moral agents at all times and in all places.

A rule stipulating that stealing is wrong is a universalizable ethic. A rule stipulating that stealing is permitted by people over 6 feet tall is not. This introduces arbitrary distinctions between types of moral agents and therefore fails the universalization test. This concept is commonly referred to as the “Golden Rule of Ethics” or the “Kantian Categorical Imperative.”

The second and more obvious criterion for an ethic or right to be justified is that it must be practically achievable. If one cannot physically act in accordance with an ethic, then the ethic is null and void.  For instance, the proposition that occupying a physical space with one’s body is unjustified is absurd because one cannot but take up standing room.

Third and finally, for an ethic to be justified, it cannot come into conflict with other norms which must be presupposed in the act of discourse or argumentation. For if a proposed norm did come into conflict with the necessary norms of argumentation, then the person proposing the ethic would fall into what is known as a “performative contradiction.” That is to say – the person’s actions would come into conflict with the proposal he was making. To justify anything means to justify it in argumentation. As the act of argumentation presupposes certain norms, any proposed norm that was in conflict with these must be rejected as logically unsound. It is important to remember argumentation is a conflict-free exchange of ideas; it may be as simple as a truth claim proposed by one individual to another.

The next layer of groundwork requires examining the nature of axioms. According to Ayn Rand, “an axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it.” This definition will be pertinent when discussing Hans Hermann Hoppe’s argumentation ethics later in this chapter.

The particular axiom upon which the whole of Austrian Economics is based is that of “Human Action.” Ludwig Von Mises defines this axiom:

Human action is purposeful behavior. Or we may say: Action is will put into operation and transformed into an agency, is aiming at ends and goals, is the ego’s meaningful response to stimuli and to the conditions of its environment, is a person’s conscious adjustment to the state of the universe that determines his life.[5]

Simply put, the axiom of action tells one that action is purposive; that people deliberately employ means for the sake of achieving particular ends. Furthermore, for anyone to act he must be doing so with the intention of “profiting” in some manner. That is to say, if he is acting, he necessarily must view such actions as bringing him closer to a more preferable state of affairs. This is not to say his actions will accomplish this, but rather that he believes they will. This is true necessarily, for if he felt a given action would take him further from his preferred state of affairs, then he would either refrain from acting or act differently.

This does not mean that people do not sometimes act to help others at a cost to themselves, but rather that they view such an act to yield more to them (in this case a feeling of personal psychic pleasure) than what is being given up. Such psychic pleasure may also be referred to as “psychic profit.”

An additional insight made by Austrian economists is that all value is necessarily subjective. The mere fact that voluntary trades occur is indicative of this truth. For example, if I buy a candy bar from you for a dollar then this demonstrates that I value the candy bar more than a dollar whereas you value it less than a dollar, otherwise we would have never bothered expending the time and energy required to make said trade in the first place. From this insight one may deduce that all voluntary trades must be seen as mutually beneficial ex ante to both parties involved, otherwise they would not occurr.

The “a priori of communication/argumentation/discourse” will serve as the final piece of groundwork (from hereon-in I shall refer to this concept as the “a priori of argumentation,” though “communication” and “discourse” are also appropriate). Hans-Herman Hoppe defines the “a priori of argumentation:”

The argument shows us that any truth claim, the claim connected with any proposition that it is true, objective or valid (all terms used synonymously here), is and must be raised and settled in the course of an argumentation. Since it cannot be disputed that this is so (one cannot communicate and argue that one cannot communicate and argue), and since it must be assumed that everyone knows what it means to claim something to be true (one cannot deny this statement without claiming its negation to be true), this very fact has been aptly called ‘the a priori of communication and argumentation.’[6]

This fact is logically incontestable. There is no way anyone can assert something to be true without making an argument – for the very act of asserting something to be true is itself an argument. Furthermore, one cannot coherently claim not to know what truth is, for in so doing he is claiming that it is true that he does not know what it means for something to be true. Thus, our actor finds himself in a performative contradiction. It may be concluded, then, that for one to make any argument, it must first be presupposed that he understands the concepts of truth and validity and that a given proposition may only be shown as such in the course of an argument.


Justifying The Libertarian Ethic

Now that the necessary groundwork has been laid, we may proceed in justifying the Libertarian Ethic by means of Hoppe’s “Argumentation Ethics.” Hoppe describes the nature of this approach:

It [Argumentation Ethics] only makes explicit what is already implied in the concept of argumentation itself, and in analyzing any actual norm proposal its task is merely confined to analyzing whether or not it is logically consistent with the very ethics which the proponent must presuppose as valid insofar as he is able to make his proposal at all.[7]

Put differently, if one proposes an ethic which contradicts the necessarily presupposed ethics of discourse, then this proposed ethic must necessarily be rendered invalid by his own action (the fact that he engaged in argumentation). Thus, the ethical norms presupposed in the making of any proposal must themselves be the logical benchmark by which all future ethical proposals are evaluated. If a given ethic runs counter to the presupposed ethical norms of proposal making, then it cannot be valid.[8]

Argumentation ethics are a logical extension of the a priori of argumentation. The purpose of any argument is to establish a proposition as being true/justified, or conversely to show a given proposition to be false/unjustified. Argumentation, then, is by its very nature persuasive and non-coercive. If one were to attempt to use physical coercion in the course of an argument, this would undermine the intent of discovering truth or falsehood, thereby precluding such an act from being compatible with argumentation. As such, for someone to engage in argumentation with another would require an implicit acceptance that the other party has the right to exclusive control over his own body.

To demonstrate this, let us assume that one does not recognize the other’s exclusive control over his own body, and proceeds to slap him in the face when confronted with a point he is unable to counter. This coercive act would immediately end the argument and begin violent conflict. To reinforce this fact, let us assume that one of our interlocutors does not hit the other, but rather threatens to assault him if he does not concede. Again, this act of coercion falls outside the realm of argumentation as it undermines the goal of discovering a truth or a falsehood by substituting physical conflict for resolution.

By establishing as a precondition of argumentation the mutual recognition and acceptance of each party’s agency, the principle of self-ownership has been justified a priori. Thus, it may be concluded that any proposition(s) which conflict(s) with the principle of self-ownership cannot be coherently justified. For the sake of thoroughness, I will proceed to run the principle of self-ownership through a Justification Schema.

  1. Is it universalizable? Yes. The principle of self-ownership states that every moral agent, without exception, is the sole and legitimate owner of his body.
  2. Is it practically achievable? Yes. Every moral agent has the capacity to own his body.
  3. Is it compatible with the necessary presuppositions of argumentation? Yes. In fact, the principle of self-ownership is a necessary presupposition of argumentation.

Next, I will provide a justification for the private ownership of external economic goods. Hoppe explains lucidly:

I first demonstrate that argumentation, and argumentative justification of anything, presupposes not only the right to exclusively control one’s body but the right to control other scarce goods as well, for if no one had the right to control anything except his own body, then we would all cease to exist and the problem of justifying norms – as well as all other human problems – simply would not exist. We do not live on air alone; hence, simply by virtue of the fact of being alive, property rights to other things must be presupposed to be valid, too. No-one who is alive could argue otherwise. [9]

A practical precondition for argumentation is that the actors involved are alive. To be alive, and to even argue, requires the right to exclusively control and consume external resources. Naturally, one must also have the right to occupy a given amount of physical space with his body before he may be able to argue at all. Rothbard supplements this argument:

Now, any person participating in any sort of discussion including one on values, is, by virtue of so participating, alive and affirming life. For if he were really opposed to life, he would have no business continuing to be alive. Hence, the supposed opponent of life is really affirming it in the very process of discussion, and hence the preservation and furtherance of one’s life takes on the stature of an incontestable axiom. [10]

This argument should not be misconstrued as saying that people are entitled to having a particular set of scarce resources, but rather that it is within their right to own them provided they are acquired via just means. The distinction here may seem trivial but the implications are vastly different. For instance, if one is entitled to a particular resource, this would mean that he would have a right to it and that if this right is not fulfilled, then physical force or the threat thereof would be justified in either fulfilling it or seeking retribution for its violation.

This is what is known as a positive right. For a positive right to be fulfilled, someone is required to take an action in order to fulfill it. For example, if I had a right to healthcare, this would oblige someone else to provide this service to me or to at least provide me with the funds necessary to purchase it. Thus, “positive rights” necessarily conflict with private property rights, as they limit to some degree a person’s right to exclusive control over his own body or external property.

In contrast, having the right to own something simply entails that others may not commit aggression against this owned good or make threats thereof. For that to be fulfilled requires no action taken on the part of anyone else. These types of rights are known as “negative rights.” In contrast to positive rights, negative rights simply preclude others from taking certain actions, whereas positive rights oblige others to act. Finally, the validity of the private ownership of external economic goods will be verified by running it through the justification schema:

  1. Is it universalizable? Yes. The right to own external economic goods is shared by all moral agents and can thus claim to satisfy the test of universalization.
  2. Is it practically achievable? Yes, everyone has the capacity to own external economic goods or scarce resources at all times.
  3. Is it compatible with the necessary presuppositions of argumentation? Yes. In fact, the right to own external scarce resources is a necessary precondition of argumentation.

In light of the above proofs for the principle of self-ownership and the right to own external property, one may deduce that the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP) must also be valid. To further demonstrate the validity of the NAP we will run it through the justification schema:

  1. Is it universalizable? Yes, the NAP condemns uninvited initiations of physical force or threats thereof against all moral agents and their property.
  2. Is it practically achievable? Yes, everyone has the capacity to refrain from committing aggression against others or their property at all times.
  3. Is it compatible with the necessary presuppositions of argumentation? Yes, in fact the NAP is a necessary presupposition of argumentation.

Original appropriation (aka homesteading) and voluntary exchange are the only two legitimate means of acquiring property. Hoppe has this to say:

If a person did not acquire the right of exclusive control over other, nature-given goods by his own work, that is, if other people, who had not previously used such goods, had the right to dispute the homesteader’s ownership claim, then this would only be possible if one would acquire property titles not through labor, i.e., by establishing some objective link between a particular person and a particular scarce resource, but simply by means of verbal declaration. This solution – part from the obvious fact that it would not even qualify as a solution in a purely technical sense in that it would not provide a basis for deciding between rivaling declarative claims – is incompatible with the already justified ownership of a person over his body. For if one could indeed appropriate property by decree, this would imply that it would also be possible for one to simply declare another person’s body to be one’s own. However, as we have seen, to say that property is acquired not through homesteading action but through declaration involves a practical contradiction: nobody can say and declare anything, unless his right to use his body is already assumed to be valid simply because of the very fact that regardless of what he says, it is he, and nobody else, who has homestead it as his instrument of saying anything.[11]

The argument Hoppe uses here is known as an argumentum a contrario. This is an argument type that entertains the possible alternatives to a given proposal to demonstrate how they are either invalid or less suitable for a particular end. In this case, Hoppe demonstrates how the alternatives to original appropriation/homesteading must be in conflict with the principle of self-ownership, and by extension the necessary presuppositions of argumentation. The alternatives fail the third step of the justification schema. Moreover, unlike the “first user” homesteading rule, such a declarative alternative creates the possibility for multiple people to lay claim to a given scarce resource at the same time. With homesteading, however, the laws of physics do not permit two bodies (human) to occupy the same space at the same time so only one person has the capacity to mix his labor with a given resource first. It is this mutually exclusive characteristic of space occupation that permits the homesteading theory to avoid any possible violent conflict where two or more claimants have equally valid claims to a given good or area of land. Again, if verbal declarations were in themselves considered sufficient to acquiring title over property, then anyone could simply make a competing claim against a given piece of property and propose that his evidence of ownership over said property is equally legitimate to the currently recognized owner. Thus, any future rulings over competing claims of property would ultimately have to be offered on the basis of arbitrary criteria. Alternatively, if a judge decided not to rule in favor of one party over another (because as we said the declaration in itself was sufficient in acquiring rights over property), then the number of parties having title to specific economic goods would increase drastically, thereby increasing the likelihood that multiple parties will attempt to use the good(s) in question in mutually exclusive ways. Because there would be no way to arbitrate between mutually exclusive plans for the same good, such a situation would only serve to generate conflict thereby defeating the very purpose of establishing property norms – i.e., to serve as conflict avoidance/dispute resolution mechanisms.

Perhaps one may then object: “Why does the first appropriator/homesteader get the stuff? Why not some late-comer?” If economic goods were able to be owned by some unknown person who may arrive in the future to claim them, then no one could act without infringing on the property rights of these future-comers. We would all be paralyzed, lest we violate the property rights of said future-comers. Thus, to reject the first-user ethic would be to put the nail in our own coffins. No economic goods could be consumed in the present for doing so would deny said good to future-comers. Because this particular proposal would render its followers dead, it must be considered invalid. Moreover, the practical requirement for an effective property norm is that it enables objective arbitration between competing claims to a given scarce resource.  Such arbitration is intended to confer rightful ownership to that party which may demonstrate a “superior objective link” between himself and the good in question.  If someone is a first user of a scarce resource, then by definition he is the only one who could have any objective link to it at all.  Thus, being the only one with such a link, it is necessarily superior to all others.  With this being the case, any future-comer may only establish such a link with the disputed resource by violating the first user’s previously established property right to the good.

The very purpose of ethics and norms is to help avoid otherwise unavoidable conflict. To say a latecomer or a “possible-future-comer” is the rightful owner of a given good would only serve to generate conflict between the first and late comer(s), and would therefore be completely contrary to the very purpose of norms. Thus, the only ethic or norm which would serve to avoid conflict would be to grant a given scarce good to its first user. This would be inherently conflict-free, because by definition there would be no valid competing claims. Hoppe elaborates on this first-user necessity:

What is wrong with this idea of dropping the prior-later distinction as morally irrelevant? First, if the late-comers, i.e., those who did not in fact do something with some scarce goods, had indeed as much of a right to them as the first-comers, i.e., those who did do something with the scarce goods, then literally no one would be allowed to do anything with anything, as one would have to have all of the late-comers’ consent prior to doing whatever one wanted to do. Indeed, as posterity would include one’s children’s children—people, that is, who come so late that one could never possibly ask them—advocating a legal system that does not make use of the prior-later distinction as part of its underlying property theory is simply absurd in that it implies advocating death but must presuppose life to advocate any thing. Neither we, our forefathers, nor our progeny could, do, or will survive and say or argue anything if one were to follow this rule. In order for any person—past, present, or future—to argue anything it must be possible to survive now. Nobody can wait and suspend acting until everyone of an indeterminate class of late-comers happens to appear and agree to what one wants to do. Rather, insofar as a person finds himself alone, he must be able to act, to use, produce, consume goods straightaway, prior to any agreement with people who are simply not around yet (and perhaps never will be). And insofar as a person finds himself in the company of others and there is conflict over how to use a given scarce resource, he must be able to resolve the problem at a definite point in time with a definite number of people instead of having to wait unspecified periods of time for unspecified numbers of people. Simply in order to survive, then, which is a prerequisite to arguing in favor of or against anything, property rights cannot be conceived of as being timeless and nonspecific regarding the number of people concerned. Rather, they must necessarily be thought of as originating through acting at definite points in time for definite acting individuals. [12]

An alternative argument put forth by Hoppe:

If a person A were not the owner of his physical body and all goods originally appropriated, produced or voluntarily acquired by him, there would only exist two alternatives. Either another person, B, must then be regarded as the owner of A, or both parties, A and B, must be regarded as equal co-owners of both bodies and goods.

In the first case, A would be B’s slave and subject to exploitation. B would own A and the goods originally appropriated, produced, or acquired by A, but A would not own B and the goods homesteaded, produced, or acquired by B. With this rule, two distinct classes of people would be created-exploiters (B) and exploited (A)-to whom different “law” would apply. Hence, this rule fails the “universalization test” and is from the outset disqualified as even a potential human ethic, for in order to be able to claim a rule to be a “law” (just), it is necessary that such a rule be universally-equally-valid for everyone.

In the second case of universal co-ownership, the requirement of equal rights for everyone is obviously fulfilled. Yet this alternative suffers from another fatal flaw, for each activity of a person requires the employment of scarce goods (at least his body and its standing room). Yet if all goods were the collective property of everyone, then no one, at any time and in any place, could ever do anything with anything unless he had every other co-owner’s prior permission to do what he wanted to do. And how can one give such a permission if one is not even the sole owner of one’s very own body (and vocal chords)? If one were to follow the rule of total collective ownership, mankind would die out instantly. Whatever this is, it is not a human ethic either.[13]

The first ethic clearly fails the universalization test and therefore we need not go any further. However, it is important to note that this ethic is also incompatible with the third criterion of the justification schema, which states that any valid ethic must be consistent with the presupposed ethical norms required for engaging in argumentation. In this case, it would conflict with the principle of self-ownership.

Next is the scenario where “everyone owns an equal share of everything, to include the bodies of one another.”

  1. Is this universalizable? Yes. This ethic proposal does indeed pass the universalization test as “everyone owns everything” does not entail distinctions among moral agents.
  2. Is this practically achievable? No. Acting according to this norm would be impossible. Not only would acquiring the prior approval of all seven billion people on earth be virtually impossible in itself, but no one person could even give permission in the first place, as giving permission is itself an action requiring the use of scarce resources. As each person needs everyone else’s approval in order to utilize communal resources, each of them would need everyone else’s approval simply in order to give approval. Thus, this norm falls victim to the logical quagmire of infinite regression, thereby prohibiting all actors from acting at all! Any attempt to follow this norm would lead to a speedy death.
  3. Is this compatible with the necessary presuppositions of argumentation? No, as it conflicts with the principle of self-ownership which asserts that everyone is the exclusive owner of his or her own body. If everyone owned an equal share of everyone else’s body, then no one would have right to exclusive control over his own body. It also conflicts with the right to exclusively own external property, which is a necessary precondition of life, and life a necessary precondition to being able to put forth any argument.

Now that the alternatives have been shown to fail the justification schema, let us see if the acts of acquiring property via original appropriation and voluntary exchange suffer the same or a different fate:

  1. Are they universalizable? Yes, the requirement for one to use either original appropriation or voluntary exchange to justly acquire property applies to all moral agents.
  2. Are they practically achievable? Yes, everyone has the capacity to acquire property over scarce goods through original appropriation or voluntary exchange.
  3. Are they compatible with the necessary presuppositions of argumentation? Yes, in fact they are corollaries of such presuppositions.

Common Objections to Argumentation Ethics

At this point, critics may object on the basis of Hume’s fact-value dichotomy (otherwise known as the “is-ought problem”). Formulated by David Hume, this perspective states that one cannot derive an ought from an is. Normative claims – that is, claims regarding how things should be – cannot be derived from explanations from how the world is – otherwise known as descriptive claims. Critics of Hoppe’s perspective will often attribute normative positions to his libertarian argument; they understand his argumentation ethics as saying that nobody should commit aggression. However, raising this objection indicates a misunderstanding of Hoppe’s proposal, as he does not claim to derive an “ought” from any “is.” Argumentation ethics merely identifies which ethical propositions are logically sound or justifiable, and which ones are not. Hoppe defends himself from these assertions:

It [Hoppe’s style of argumentation ethics] remains entirely in the realm of is-statements and never tries to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’ The structure of the argument is this: (a) justification is propositional justification-a priori true is-statement; (b) argumentation presupposes property in one’s body and the homesteading principle-a priori true is-statement; and (c) then, no deviation from this ethic can be argumentatively justified-a priori is statement.[14]

The truth of Hoppe’s argument is unaltered by one’s willingness or unwillingness to abide by it. Whether or not man accepts the Libertarian Ethic as valid or justified has no bearing on whether or not it is valid and justified. He summarizes the point thusly:

‘So what? Why should an a priori proof of the libertarian property theory make any difference? Why not engage in aggression anyway?’ Why indeed?! But then, why should the proof that 1+1=2 make any difference? One certainly can still act on the belief that 1+1=3 . The obvious answer is “because a propositional justification exists for doing one thing, but not for doing another.” But why should we be reasonable, is the next comeback. Again, the answer is obvious. For one, because it would be impossible to argue against it; and further, because the proponent raising this question would already affirm the use of reason in his act of questioning it. This still might not suffice and everyone knows that it would not, for even if the libertarian ethic and argumentative reasoning must be regarded as ultimately justified, this still does not preclude that people will act on the basis of unjustified beliefs either because they don’t know, they don’t care, or they prefer not to know. I fail to see why this would be surprising or make the proof somehow defective. More than this cannot be done by propositional argument.[15]


The Implications of the Libertarian Ethic

One of the shocking implications of the Libertarian/Private Property ethic is that it is not logically compatible with the State. The State is defined as:

… That organization in society which attempts to maintain a monopoly of the use of force and violence in a given territorial area; in particular, it is the only organization in society that obtains its revenue not by voluntary contribution or payment for services rendered but by coercion. While other individuals or institutions obtain their income by the production of goods and services and by the peaceful and voluntary sale of these goods and services to others, the State obtains its revenue by the use of compulsion; that is, by the use and the threat of the jailhouse and the bayonet.[16]

The first characteristic of the State is that it exercises a territorial monopoly of ultimate decision-making. The State, as final arbiter of disputes, does not allow the verdict of competing arbitration agencies to supersede its own. By definition, any uninvited initiation of physical force or the threat thereof against the persons or property of others is condemned by the NAP. Thus, the State’s status as “ultimate arbiter,” and the means by which it is enforced, are illegitimate and unjustified.

The State’s supposed legal “right” to lay taxes is also incompatible with the NAP. Taxes require one to surrender his earnings to the State despite his lack of genuine consent. Thus, because taxation amounts to taking one’s property against his will via aggressive means, it must be considered theft. To illustrate, one’s refusal to pay taxes ultimately leads to arrest and imprisonment. If one decides to resist such an arrest, the agents of the State will not hesitate to assault or murder this person.[17] To add insult to injury, most people do not directly enjoy the benefits of all the so called “services” they are forced to fund via taxes. (e.g. one who has no children having to pay taxes which go towards public elementary schools…etc.)

Finally, the State exercises jurisdiction over a given territory despite the fact that its agents have not acquired property rights over it through legitimate means, i.e., via original appropriation or voluntary exchange. This clearly indicates that the State’s claim of authority over this geographical area is unfounded. Only the legitimate owners of a given piece of property may exercise jurisdiction over it and may determine the rules under which its residents may live. Simply put, if one does not homestead a thing/space or acquire it through voluntary exchange, then he has no just authority over the people who occupy or have themselves homesteaded said thing/space.


References and footnotes

[1] Hans-Hermann Hoppe, “Property, Contract, Aggression, Capitalism, Socialism” in A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism: Economics, Politics, and Ethics (Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1989), 18.

[2] Hoppe, ibid, 11.

[3] Rothbard, “Natural Laws and Natural Rights,” in The Ethics of Liberty, 24.

[4] Hans-Hermann Hoppe. “The Problem of Social Order” in Economics and Ethics of Private Property: Studies in Political Economy and Philosophy (Boston: Kluwer Academic, 1993), 5.

[5] Ludwig von Mises, “Acting Man,” in Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949), 11.

 [6] Hoppe, “From the Economics of Laissez Faire to the Ethics of Libertarianism” in Private Property, 314.

[7] Hoppe, ibid, 315.

[8.] To clarify, when the term “ethic” is brought up in this book, it will more specifically be referring to interpersonal ethics, which are intimately related with “rights.” For instance, if I have a “right” to do something, it would be considered unethical for you to attempt to stop me from doing it via aggressive means.

[9] Hoppe, ibid, 321

[10] Rothbard, “A Crusoe Social Philosophy,” ibid, 32-33.

[11] Hoppe, ibid, 336.

[12] Hoppe, “The Socio-Psychological Foundations of Socialism or the Theory of the State” in Socialism and Capitalism, 170.

[13] Hans-Hermann Hoppe, introduction to The Ethics of Liberty by Murray N. Rothbard (New York: New York University Press, 1998), xvi-vii.

[14] Hoppe, “On the Ultimate Justification of the Ethics of Private Property” in Private Property, 345.

[15] Hoppe, ibid, 407-408.

[16] Murray N. Rothbard, “Anatomy of the State” in Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature, and Other Essays, 57. Washington, D.C.: Libertarian Review, 1974. See, where Schumpeter says in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy: “The friction or antagonism between the private and the public sphere was intensified from the first by the fact that. . . the State has been living on a revenue which was being produced in the private sphere for private purposes and had to be deflected from these purposes by political force. The theory which construes taxes on the analogy of club dues or of the purchase of the service of, say, a doctor only proves how far removed this part of the social sciences is from scientific habits of mind.” See also, Murray N. Rothbard, “The Fallacy of the ‘Public Sector,”’ New Individualist Review (Summer, 1961): 3ff.

[17] Lysander Spooner explains the practice of taxation in No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority, 1867, Ch. III: “Go to A_____ B_____, and say to him that “the government” has need of money to meet the expenses of protecting him and his property. If he presumes to say that he has never contracted with us to protect him, and that he wants none of our protection, say to him that that is our business, and not his; that we choose to protect him, whether he desires us to do so or not; and that we demand pay, too, for protecting him. If he dares to inquire who the individuals are, who have thus taken upon themselves the title of “the government,” and who assume to protect him, and demand payment of him, without his having ever made any contract with them, say to him that that, too, is our business, and not his; that we do not choose to make ourselves individually known to him; that we have secretly (by secret ballot) appointed you our agent to give him notice of our demands, and, if he complies with them, to give him, in our name, a receipt that will protect him against any similar demand for the present year. If he refuses to comply, seize and sell enough of his property to pay not only our demands, but all your own expenses and trouble beside. If he resists the seizure of his property, call upon the bystanders to help you (doubtless some of them will prove to be members of our band.) If, in defending his property, he should kill any of our band who are assisting you, capture him at all hazards; charge him (in one of our courts) with murder; convict him, and hang him. If he should call upon his neighbors, or any others who, like him, may be disposed to resist our demands, and they should come in large numbers to his assistance, cry out that they are all rebels and traitors; that “our country” is in danger; call upon the commander of our hired murderers; tell him to quell the rebellion and “save the country,” cost what it may. Tell him to kill all who resist, though they should be hundreds of thousands; and thus strike terror into all others similarly disposed. See that the work of murder is thoroughly done; that we may have no further trouble of this kind hereafter. When these traitors shall have thus been taught our strength and our determination, they will be good loyal citizens for many years, and pay their taxes without a why or a wherefore… It is under such compulsion as this that taxes, so called, are paid.”

11 thoughts on “A Spontaneous Order: Libertarianism”

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