Defining Liberty


Defining Liberty

By Duncan Whitmore

In a previous essay concerning the nature of the libertarian movement, we stated that the purpose of libertarian theory (in contrast to libertarian activism) should be to define and justify liberty – to tell us what liberty is and why it is a good thing. It is to the first of these tasks that this essay will be devoted.

Some readers may regard defining liberty as something of a redundant exercise. After all, we have had many definitions of liberty from libertarian and proto-libertarian thinkers, most of which say more or less the same thing: freedom from harm (J S Mill1); freedom from coercion (Hayek2); freedom from “restraint and violence by others” (Locke3); “Absence of opposition” or “externall [sic] Impediments of motion” (Hobbes4); “unobstructed action according to our will within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others” (Jefferson5). Although modern libertarian theory has successfully refined these concepts – Mill’s harm principle was, for instance, notoriously vague – descriptors of liberty used by libertarians today (such as “self-ownership”, “private property” and “non-aggression”) still suffer from lacking several important clarifications. This is not to imply that libertarian scholars have failed to properly define these principles in the past; more that libertarians (myself included) have become so used to reciting them without further thought that a review of what they actually mean would not be out of place. Moreover, as we shall see below, very different consequences can flow from what appear to be relatively minor disagreements or misunderstandings.6 If this is the case within the community of libertarian scholars how much worse can it be outside of it?

One initial problem is that such concepts are themselves reducible to further fundamentals. What precisely, for instance, is aggression? Why are some acts aggressive whereas other acts are not? Does it have anything to do with intended hostility or are motivations irrelevant? What, also, does it mean to have “self-ownership”? Precisely what is the “self” and what does my “ownership” over it allow me to do? Continue reading

Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Two – Self-Ownership and Original Appropriation


Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part Two – Self-Ownership and Original Appropriation

By Duncan Whitmore

In part one of this five-part series we outlined some preliminary considerations concerning how a libertarian legal system might unfold and develop. We are now in a position to begin exploring the causative events of legal liability in a legal order governed by libertarian prescription.

Prior to considering any specific area of the law such as tort or contract we must explore the ways in which a libertarian legal system will recognise and enforce self-ownership and also the original appropriation of previously ownerless goods.

Technically speaking, the latter topic at least could be covered as part of the law of consent. This concerns the moral imperative that a person should only be liable for the actions that he has undertaken as a voluntary agent – i.e. through his own choice and volition. Both self-ownership and titles over goods allow their owner to not only enjoy the productive services flowing from his body and external goods, but equally and oppositely they burden him with the responsibility of ensuring that, through his actions, those goods do not physically interfere with the person and property of anybody else. Indeed, although law, as understood by libertarians, responds to actions rather than to ownership per se, there is likely to be at least prima facie liability of the owner of property if that property is found to have physically interfered with the person or property of somebody else. Thus, in the same way that it is unjust to physically interfere with someone else’s property, so too is it unjust to hold someone responsible for property that he has not voluntarily asserted control over through his actions. Continue reading

Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part One – What is Libertarian Law?


Libertarian Law and Legal Systems Part One – What is Libertarian Law?

By Duncan Whitmore

One of the more fascinating but less discussed areas of libertarian theory is how law and legal systems will operate in a libertarian society. To complete such a survey in its entirety would, no doubt, take a lifetime of study and authorship of one or several treatise-length works. We shall, therefore, be placing a very necessary limit to the scope of this survey by concentrating on where, why and how legal liability would arise in a libertarian society – in other words, our primary question will be what are the causative events that trigger legal liability in a libertarian society, and how will legal bodies develop and apply the law in accordance with libertarian principles? We will not be exploring in too much detail the further questions of legal responses to liability such as punishment, retribution, restitution and so on, nor will we be looking into the question of how competing police and civil or criminal court systems might operate (except, as we shall see below, to contrast them to state-based legislative law-making systems). Even though the treatment of the topic of liability alone will still contain many omissions and areas requiring expansion with more detail, we hope to lay the foundations of how libertarian law might operate.

This first part of this five-part series will examine what law is from a libertarian perspective, how different areas of the law can be categorised, and how legal principles will arise in a libertarian society. Part Two will investigate how libertarian legal systems will recognise self-ownership and the original appropriation of ownerless goods. Parts three and four will explore the laws of consent and of crimes/torts respectively while part five will deal with some miscellaneous but nevertheless significant considerations. Continue reading

Economic Myths #7 – Government means Harmony


One of the aspects of capitalism and the free market that the typical lay person finds difficult to comprehend is the fact that the complex structure of work, production, distribution, and trade could possibly take place without some kind of centralised, directing authority in order to co-ordinate everybody’s efforts. Wouldn’t there just be chaos and mal-coordination with everyone trying to make their own, independent plans if there is nobody at the tiller to steer the giant ship?

This fallacy stems from the belief – accentuated by holistic concepts such as aggregate, pseudo-statistics like “GDP” or “the national income” – that what we refer to as “the economy” is some kind of enormous machine that has “input”, with a single operator “processing” these “inputs” into “outputs”.

In fact, rather than being one giant, amorphous blob “the economy” is made up of millions and millions of independent, unilateral acts of production and two-way trades, many of which will never have anything to do with each other. I may sell an apple to my neighbour for 10p in London; another person may sell an orange for 20p to his neighbour in Manchester. Neither of the two pairs of people has ever met, nor need any of them have any involvement with the exchange of the other pair; and yet both exchanges would be regarded as part of “the British economy” in mainstream discourse. Continue reading