Belonging to Yourself or to the Collective
Most people are conditioned to accept serf-like dependency on the collectivist state without much thought or concern. Libertarians have an ‘a priori’ theory of the practical benefits of absolute self-ownership of person and property.
Libertarians are proponents of self-ownership. In the form of the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP), the right to dispose of your person or body and your justly acquired property is absolute. The NAP will be the guiding principle underlying libertarian law as administered by competing judgement agencies in future free, private-law societies.
All cases then will be about; whether anyone had infringed someone else’s rights under the NAP – intentionally, negligently or accidentally; whether a restitution order for injury or loss should be made; and for how much.
The focus is on private law as the basis of society, with no public law. That is to say there would be no legal provisions allowing some people, acting in the name of the ‘state’, to rob and coerce other people without legal redress. And a jolly good thing to. Who in his right mind wants to rub shoulders with legally protected predators and parasites?
Not to permit state privilege may sound like an aberrant ideology to many who have been raised in the state’s vast network of educational, media and bureaucratic systems. These indoctrinate people to support the parasitic state and its corporate fellow travellers.
The libertarian approach is based on a practical approach to a basic question. What is the best way to allocate responsibility for deciding how each person should act in the world? The only two options in principle are either individual self-ownership, or collective ownership of every member of society? Starting from first principles, which philosophical and legal approach will create more wellbeing and human flourishing in practice? Like most everything else about living in a community, this is about rival legal arrangements.
PRIVATE OR COLLECTIVE LAW ON THE DESERT ISLAND
Libertarians delight in creating thought experiments to clarify principles of individual action and exchange. A classic thought experiment case is the arrival of our heroic individual on a previously uninhabited shore. Our man, almost inevitably a Robinson Crusoe figure (from Daniel Defoe’s book of the same name published in 1719), finds himself alone on a desert island. Let’s see what happens first under libertarian rules.
(By the way, Lucy Irvine’s book ‘Castaway’, and the film made from it, accidentally amounts to a real life ‘desert island’ illustration of economic principles, such as ‘Specialisation and Division of Labour‘. Reliance on voluntary exchange with others, rather than trying to live an unviable idyll in isolation literally saves the protagonists. And Amanda Donahue is splendid in the film version.)
Crusoe faces the task of acting, in Austrian School Economic terms, to maximise his ‘Psychic Income’ or minimise ‘his sense of felt unease’, as Mises describes it. ‘Felt unease’ includes minor questions like how to stay alive. To stay alive, and still more so if he wishes to provide clothing, shelter and security, our man must decide between courses of action.
Possible courses of action do include inaction. Doing nothing is an option worth bearing in mind in many circumstances. It is inexpensive and easy even for the unskilled. But in this case, it will result in death, so our Robinson Crusoe must come up with a plan. Here are the choices: Crusoe decides what to do, or the collective does. But since Crusoe is marooned on an island, literally ‘isolated’, in practice any worldwide collective cannot intervene, yet. (That is one reason why libertarians love Desert Island thought experiments.)
In this necessarily libertarian island, Crusoe owns himself. He makes his own decisions and bears the costs of error. And he receives the profits of success. He acts based on his on-the-spot understanding of resources, his knowledge of his capabilities, his intense interest in his survival and then wellbeing, and his intimate knowledge of his own preferences or values.
As soon as he ‘mixes his labour with the land’ as John Locke, I believe, expressed it in the late 17th Century, bits of the island become his ‘justly acquired’ property. In quasi-libertarian England, and its daughter societies in the New World after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, original appropriation of land through labour became the primordial property right.
Robinson Crusoe prioritises food collection, of coconuts and seafood, to stay alive. But once he gathers enough food daily to feed himself, he decides to collect more coconuts and save them. These savings of consumables are the ‘Financial Capital’ of his one-man economy.
Robinson the Saver then lends the saved coconuts to Robinson the Entrepreneur to invest in new plant and equipment in the form of fish nets and coconut collecting tools. Over the next few days, Robinson the Entrepreneur gives the local labour force, Robinson the Worker, the accumulated coconuts (Financial Capital) so he can live while he devotes himself to making new, productive ‘Physical Capital’, i.e. fishnets and nut harvesting sticks.
Food production is much increased because of these new tools. The new Physical Capital ‘is giving effect to labour’ in the wonderful 18th Century expression employed by Adam Smith in his ‘Wealth of Nations’. Robinson the Worker is producing much more with his new tools.
Unlike most misinformed, misled and mal-educated modern mortals, Robinson the Worker completely understands that prosperity really stems from the sacrifice of Robinson the Saver and the insight of Robinson the Entrepreneur. Not all value, by any means, is created by ‘labour’, as Marx wrongly supposed.
Nor does he think that his prosperity is caused by government action, because there isn’t any government. It is very doubtful that he would welcome being forced to hand over hard-won coconuts or fish to feed hopeful politicians, should any appear.
Back on the island, more and more produce can be saved and invested as the desert island economy booms. Before you know it, Crusoe has a house, crops, goat meat and milk readily to hand, stocks of tools and materials, hobbies and even the leisure time to indulge in them. One day his stock of materials, tools and food might even enable him to build a raft.
Even though he is alone, the true principles of voluntary exchange, between the different aspects of his own personality, as saver/investor, entrepreneur and worker, have already come into play. It is a regular economic miracle.
Nor should this be surprising. It makes sense for decisions to be made at the most decentralised level by people with the most knowledge, opportunity and incentive to act effectively. Obviously that person here is Robinson Crusoe.
For Libertarians, Crusoe is not just the ‘de facto’ but also the ‘de jure’ (i.e. in law) owner of the island. At least he owns the parts of it which he has homesteaded by mixing it with his labour. By the way, having picnics or walking the dog elsewhere on the island doesn’t count as ‘labour’ so he (arguably) hasn’t homesteaded, and so acquired, those parts of the island.
Libertarianism just comes down to achieving the greatest possible degree of decentralisation, all the way down to literally ‘empowering’ the individual. It is based on the practical recognition that it makes sense that everything be done on the basis of mutually beneficial arrangements for voluntary cooperation – including deals made within the same person. That way no bullies can impose the ‘I win - you lose’ deals that those legally privileged by the state delight in forcing us to accept.
The absence of state bullying frees everyone up for more useful and less depressing activities, making both prosperity and contentment more likely.
LIBERTARIAN LAW ONLY EXISTS TO RESOLVE DISPUTES
So, we have prosperity on the libertarian version of the Desert Island but there are no transactions with other people and therefore no practical legal issues. Two things are missing before libertarian law can appear.
First there must be the possibility of having disputes on the island. Disputes in any society arise in connection with resources that are ‘scarce’ in the economics sense of the term. Scarce resources are things, especially your time, for which different people have different uses, and which do not exist in unlimited quantities.
A pizza is ‘scarce’ in the sense that more pizzas cannot be created in unlimited supply and each new pizza costs resources, most of them ‘scarce’ too. And the different desired use of the pizza is that more than one person wants to eat it.
In the libertarian view, a pizza made by Crusoe on his island is his property, as is (part of) the island, his house, tools, clothes etc. Property is necessarily exclusive. It is the necessary institution to minimise disputes about how scarce resources are to be used. If all things in a community have absolute, identified owners, fewer disputes about who gets to use them can arise in the first place.
But a society based on notions of collective ownership, like ours, gives rise to exponentially more conflicts as individual ownership of self and property is compromised. Contrary to the fantasies of globalists, WEF Davos Crowd corporatist fascist elites, and statist power-grabbers the world over, global totalitarian technocratic rule will not resolve this difficulty and must sooner or later fail too.
In the original book, Robinson Crusoe rescues Man Friday from cannibals. Friday is a person with very different skills, knowledge and preferences, but the same human desire to survive and promote his own wellbeing. And he has the same right to personal self-ownership under the basic libertarian NAP.
With two people, it is possible for the first time to have disputes on the island, for example over how Friday uses his time and resources, and who owns what.
We will do Crusoe the honour of assuming he doesn’t simply enslave Friday. In the book, Crusoe actually is a slave owner. When he gets off the island, he returns to Brazil where the slaves on his sugar plantation, under the kindly guidance of a local religious house, have created a flourishing concern. Crusoe is a wealthy slaveowner. Slavery, a traditional feature of poverty-stricken agrarian states, is of course the ultimate negation of liberty. Whether in 18th Century Brazil or the West in the 21st Century, that negation can only lead to a mistrust, poverty, corruption and a cascading failure of human flourishing.
However, acting like a somewhat enlightened Englishman of the Glorious Revolution era, in this case at least, our Crusoe engages in voluntary cooperative transactions with Friday which are intended increase their wellbeing further. After all, the cannibals are still around. Each man might need the others’ help in battle.
With more than one person, there is also scope for the specialisation and division of labour to come into play. Each man can specialise in doing what he is comparatively best able to do – compared to other things he might do. He can divide up the productive effort as best suits each man. Perhaps Friday fishes well and Crusoe prefers gathering nuts. And then they trade. Under the economic ‘Law of Comparative Advantage’ people always benefit from cooperative exchange (‘trade’) regardless of their competencies relative to each other. Having two people on the desert Island is all upside.
So long, that is, as they don’t create disputes by failing to recognise each-others’ property rights and renege on agreements. However, the fact that disputes arise does not mean that libertarian law will finally make its appearance. Instead, Crusoe and Friday must resolve their disputes amicably, or there will be violence. Violence (including fraud etc) is what law in a free society solely exists to deter and punish.
LIBERTARIAN LEGAL ARRANGEMENTS ON THE ISLAND
To have law you need judges to decide cases, that is to resolve each dispute submitted for judgement. Obviously neither Friday nor Robinson can be judges in their own cases. That is contrary to Natural Justice. What you need is an impartial third person. Let’s say the toothsome Brooke Shields character from the film ‘Blue Lagoon’ (another Desert Island fable) pops up on the beach.
Crusoe and Friday can now ask her to act as judge in any dispute they may have. For the Brooke Shields character, there is every incentive to arrive at a just resolution. It is an honour to be asked to judge. She would like to be asked again so she wants to do her best. And she needs both parties to accept the outcome, including any restitution award, as fundamentally just.
She doesn’t want them to be angry with her since she has to live with both of them afterwards. She tries to set out principles or reasons based on fairness to justify her decision about the dispute. These principles explain her current decision. That decision then acts as a precedent to resolve later disputes.
She knows that if she has a dispute with either Friday or Robinson, they will have to ask a third person, the one not involved in the dispute, to adjudicate. So she really needs to ensure that she has acted reasonably herself, and has been seen to do so. Overwise a revenge cycle will take over and the island’s peace and prosperity will be threatened.
Even if the villainous Long John Silver himself had stepped onto the same beach from the pages of ‘Treasure Island’ he would still face the same incentive to make just decisions when asked to judge others’ disputes.
That is just how customary law (basically our case law based Common Law) arose in stateless pre-modern societies. It would arise in future private-law free societies. In the future it is likely there would be competing judgement specialists but the principles would be the same.
The key difference with a state judge is that the latter is part of a monopoly based on the threat of force. He can and must abuse this monopoly by giving favourable decisions to his fellow state employees as they go about their essential role of robbing and coercing their subjects – viewed at least from the libertarian standpoint.
Obviously, there is the possibility that Long John Silver would try to subjugate the others, just as Crusoe might have enslaved Friday. Both would then have created a ‘state’ and ended liberty and therefore prosperity, traversing in one action the course being taken over generations by our top-heavy societies.
But it may be doubted whether either of these very intelligent and somewhat likeable characters would resort to violent domination rather than peaceful cooperation, given the benefits of the former and the risks of the latter.
MAKING COLLECTIVE OWNERSHIP WORK
But what if people are believed not to own themselves. This is what most people in the West currently believe in practice. If you owned yourself in a free private-law society, you could do absolutely what you liked with your body and possessions. Nobody could extract any obedience or resources from you against your will and without your consent.
On this collectivist view, when Robinson Crusoe gets out of bed in the morning and decides what to do with the new day, he must presumably get approval from the other inhabitants of the earth. If he doesn’t own himself or the resources around him, then logically he needs to do what the collective wants. A number of problems spring to mind.
It is obviously impossible that billions of people could find the time to review everyone else’s proposed actions every day. Anyway, in case of disagreement, whose view should prevail? Nor could the necessarily massive information flows reach the ends of the earth to inform global decision making. Contrary to modern Artificial Intelligence (AI) enthusiasts, the information problem alone will always remain fundamentally insuperable.
Nobody else could know as much about Crusoe’s abilities, desires, alternative courses of action and opportunities, and none could communicate their views in time, or indeed at all – given that Crusoe is marooned. And anyway, nobody has as much incentive as Crusoe to do the right thing for himself. Why and how should the millions of the world’s inhabitants actually care about everybody else equally, or at all?
Nevertheless, most people evidently have been conditioned to think that individuals must not have complete control of their persons and property – in other words must not be genuinely free. That must be why they reject liberty in favour of effective (if disguised) servitude which suits only their rulers. They think this, even though liberty is patently the sole workable, practical approach.
You could say I have not made a realistic comparison of collectivist and libertarian approaches. It is supposedly nonsense to think that rule by the collective means everyone’s actions being determined by literally every member of the collective. But why is it nonsense? What else does collective ownership mean if not universal joint decision making? And yet in this form the notion is obviously completely impractical.
‘COLLECTIVE’ OWNERSHIP BY STATIST ELITES
What the collectivists are really defending is not that people jointly or collectively decide anything. Instead, we delegate as much as possible of the (in practice) impossible task of collective management of everything to ‘democratically’ elected so-called representatives. These beings are then somehow supposed to hold to account a massive government apparatus deemed to be running the collective.
The state increasingly takes responsibility for pretty much all aspects of life, in line with the popular prejudice that you cannot own yourself – and with the widespread desire to dump the costs of downsides (‘socialise costs’) on everyone else. Well, there is a growing price to pay. As the WEF/Davos crowd says, by 2030 ‘you will own nothing and you will be happy’.
Increasingly obviously, the whole story of democratic collective management is totally implausible. Whether or not political and corporate elites are intentionally corrupt, the story in effect serves as cover for a systemically corrupt intertwining of big business, deep state and bought-and-paid-for political elites. They spend their time setting up ways of disadvantaging productive people to the benefit of state protected interests.
The attempted imposition of untried and dangerous ‘vaccines’ on populations who are mainly not at material risk from Covid is just the latest example of state and corporate snouts drinking deep in the collective trough.
The knee-jerk popular denial of self-ownership leads inevitably to a status akin to slavery where most people become wholly dependent on small elites. The bigger government and corporate power structures become, the more likely that those who make it to the summit of these gigantic piles will be sociopaths. There is little prosperity or human flourishing for us on this view. Elites cannot in fact achieve better outcomes than free individuals, even if they wanted to. Central planning of society was shown by Mises to be always and everywhere unworkable a century ago.
Unsurprisingly the elites resent us. Deep down they know their rule rests on using the state’s legal privilege to subordinate populations. They are seen merely serve their own interests. We can and should dispense with their dubious services.
LAW IN COLLECTIVIST SOCIETIES
The prevailing popular notion of everyone and everything belonging to the human race collectively is predominant in modern societies. This must be the case because the collective’s unaccountable elites are deemed be entitled to make any new laws they want, including laws that can deprive you of all property in yourself or your possessions.
It is worth revisiting our Desert Island once more to consider what life would be like there on the basis of worldwide collectivist law and practice. In a collectivist world, Robinson Crusoe would act to preserve his life by collecting food. But would he start the virtuous cycle of saving and investing? Will he not say think that there is little point in building things up here? Will Man Friday similarly make less effort to improve the community’s wellbeing when his future prosperity is also threatened by the eventual imposition of a collectivist state regime.
When the island is eventually discovered by the collective’s state, a maze of laws will instantly become enforceable. There is a good chance he will owe taxes. His house may be demolished or confiscated. He may be fined for infractions against the state’s stultifying regulatory protection for its vested interests. In America it is calculated that nobody can live for even a day without committing several (victimless) criminal offenses against the mass of artificial collective law spewed out by various legislatures.
It will be made clear to Crusoe that he cannot own himself or his justly acquired property. The elites decide how much they leave him after they take their cut.
In short, Crusoe can expect the sudden reimposition of the energy sapping regime we know and love as ‘the state’. His logical response is to not achieve all he is capable of. Instead he will underperform in the face of his likely future loss of property and liberty.