Baby Libertarianism: Property Rights


Body Suit for Property Rights BabyBaby Libertarianism

Today, I’m beginning a series on what I call, “baby libertarianism”: problems or fallacies common to those who are new to libertarian ideas but tend to be grown out of as they study more and become more “mature” libertarians. To borrow a phrase from my friend Dr. Charles, baby libertarians will spill the libertarian mush and pull down the libertarian drapes as they grow up.

I do not mean to imply that I don’t exhibit any properties of a baby libertarian, nor that I couldn’t benefit from more self-reflection, but I hope that this discussion may profit those who consider themselves libertarians. And if I mention anyone in particular, I don’t mean to say that he or she is a baby libertarian; they are only to serve as examples of ways baby libertarians tend to think.

Property Rights

Libertarianism, at least that based in the natural rights and/or Rothbardian tradition(s), is heavily based in property rights: you own your body and you own the property that your body creates by mixing your labor with natural resources, as well as property that you trade for and are voluntarily given. Using aggression (an initiation of force) against someone else’s person or property violates their property rights and is frowned upon by libertarians. It is with this that we arrive at the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP).

One of the more common fallacies made by baby libertarians is taking the NAP further than they ought; that is, making it an all-encompassing ethic rather than a starting point. They neglect to recognize that there is a difference between law and morality; that there are things that don’t violate NAP that ought not to be done.

For example, in a recent post by Amanda Billyrock, she writes, “Do I believe that the initiation of force against a peaceful person is the worst act a human could commit? Absolutely.” I commented,

I think it’s a mistake to make the non-aggression principle the sole or highest governing principle of ethics. Rather, I like how Hazlitt describes law (or that which you and I would see as rules governing the proper use of force), that is, as a subset of ethics. There are obviously things that are wrong but should not be governed by law and acts that don’t violate the non-aggression principle that seem to be worse than some initiations of force.

For example, I think most people would say that cheating on your spouse is worse than taking a candy bar from a store without paying (not that most people saying something is the decider of right and wrong, but you get my point). Or, perhaps, neglecting to keep promises to your child about attending their sporting events (or what have you) is worse than embezzling post-its from work.

Thus, I submit, there are acts that don’t aggress that are worse than acts that do.

And I think this is an important point, especially if we desire that libertarians represent themselves to the world as courteous and kind people. As an example of what not to do, I offer Adam Kokesh’s use of a sample of a friend’s guitar track as an intro for his show. Though I cannot cite the show number that he talked about this (and it was over a year ago), as I remember, his friend wanted compensation for Adam’s use of his music. Adam doesn’t believe that intellectual property is legitimate and refused to pay him. IP being legitimate or not, the courteous thing to do would have been to compensate his friend.

Is it not the case that artists using services like Noise Trade or Band Camp partially depend on the generosity of listeners to pay for their music, or leave a tip, even though the music could be obtained for free? Is it also not the case that anti-IP advocates use things like these as examples to explain why IP is unnecessary for artists to have an incentive to create? In this case, Adam is not providing a model that should be emulated.

Another case I’d like to mention is provided by my friend Brock (who blogs at The Propensity to Assume). At a weekly social engagement that is called “The Friday Forum,” I had left my bag on a seat and went to the restroom. When I had returned, Brock was occupying that seat and said something like, “I homesteaded this seat,” or “I don’t recognize property rights,” or some other joke using libertarian vernacular. I’m sure Brock felt that he wasn’t violating my rights, and it is not as though that particular seat was of special importance to me, but let me repeat that in our conduct with others, there is much more to consider than rights alone. Ideally, we will be considerate of the desires of others. A good host will make sure his guest is comfortable, provide refreshments, and make sure the guest’s needs are met before his own. In Brock’s defense, I will say he has done this for me when I have visited his residence.

So, I urge libertarians to know that there is much more to ethics than NAP and our service to others ought to be more than simply not violating their rights. Libertarianism focuses so much on negative rights that baby libertarians might be fooled into thinking that they are all that matter. Don’t fall in this trap.


One response »

  1. Pingback: Questions for Free-Market Moralists: A Response | Liberty Couch

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