Wednesday, 8 November 2006

Why freedom? What freedom?

A chap called Terence has taken a tilt at libertarianism, the substantive part of which Idiot Savant has conveniently summarised. Here's what we libertarians apparently get wrong:
  • "...the deification of property rights and markets, rather than a recognition that they are simply a useful tool and therefore can be changed depending on the desired social end"
  • "... [our] monomaniacal fixation on the state as the sole limitation on liberty"
  • "... the hypocrisy of many libertarians who proclaim the sanctity of absolutist property rights while opposing even token restitution by the government towards the descendents of this country's original indigenous owners... What [we]’re really advocating is ‘start from now’ libertarianism which, funnily enough, almost-always finds its strongest advocates amongst those who are doing pretty well at present thank you very much."
I'll only reply briefly, since these represent two errors and one straw men that have been dealt with at length before.
  • Property rights are a subset of rights, but just as only ghosts are able to live without property (as Ayn Rand noted) so too it is property rights that make all other rights possible ("without property rights," said Rand, "no other rights are possible.") They represent an integration of real ethical-legal principles, not a nominalist fiction, and are not confined only to property in land but to all the property we have in the values we ourselves create.
    They are a recognition that unlike other animals our human means of survival is our minds; specifically our minds put to use to reshape the things in the world into a form in which they can further our life – in a form in which they we make them valuable to us. This is the fundamental difference between ourselves and other animals: unlike them we have to produce the things we need in order to survive and to flourish – we must produce our own values -- and we must use our minds to guide us in what we produce, and how we may produce it. We must identify our values, produce them ourselves and, in order to plan long-range (the distinctive human mode of existence), we must be able to have long-range protection for those values we've produced for our survival.
    That long-range protection of the values we ourselves have created is what property rights represent.
  • Markets are simply the sum of voluntary choices taken by individuals seeking to better themselves. Those individuals might be wrong in the choices they make -- such as commissioning Frank Gehry or buying Jackson Pollock paintings for example -- but they are their choices to make, not yours or mine, since it is the values they themselves have produced that they are seeking to trade. Markets reflect the truth that voluntary interaction reflects a harmony of interests that is both benevolent and beneficial, the 'miracle' of Adam Smith's invisible hand that is no less a miracle for being explicable.
  • Freedom is not the absence of want, but freedom from physical coercion. Rights themselves may not be removed except by physical force; whenever a man is made to act against his voluntary consent, his right has been violated.
    Misunderstand this point -- of what freedom actually constitutes -- and you find that the incorrect view of freedom (absence of want) wipes out the true one, in which all human interaction can be voluntary rather than coercive -- a point reflected in the basis for libertarianism being viewed by many libertarians as 'voluntarism.'
    The chief problem with positing freedom as something different to this, as for example some variant of 'freedom from want,' is that reality itself provides no guarantees on that score, and the state is in no position to fake reality any more than you or I or Jacques Derrida. What the state does have unique to itself however is a legal monopoly on the use of force. It has power. Freedom is better than power. If providing 'freedom from want' is considered to be the state's job, then coercing those who provide the means of life is what the state is required to do, and (as history shows) there goes that whole voluntary interaction deal...
  • Libertarianz supports the right of anyone at all, regardless of colour, to front up seeking a court's recognition of and protection for their rights in common law, meeting the legal standard of proof for such things. I refer you, for example, to the Libertarianz submission on the Foreshore and Seabed Act. What we do not support however is a racially-based welfare system or an indigenous state gravy train. Make of that what you will.
I'd like in conclusion to just point out to both Terence and Idiot Savant that I am not a Nozickian, and I know no libertarians outside academia who are. There is a reason that Nozick is popular in university politics departments, and it's not because he provides robust arguments for liberty. Quite the opposite. As I've said here before:
Nozick is considered by academics to be the leading advocate for libertarianism and freedom amongst modern political philosophers, but his weak arguments are too easily trumped by self-serving intellectuals who only feel obliged to answer Nozick, rather than more substantial political thinkers like Rand....

But perhaps it is the very weakness of his arguments that add to his attraction, he is the ideal libertarian straw man - easy to knock down, and to burn while he's down.

But Nozick does have value. He shows us that if your arguments lack foundations you will undo your conclusions, no matter how true they might be.
A more robust libertarianism can be seen in my own Cue Card Libertarianism, a work still in progress, and to which I've provided some relevant links above.

[I'll answer I/S's other straw men about 'freedom only for the strong' and private footpaths leaving us imprisoned in our homes if you really want me to, but why not try and answer them yourself.]

LINKS: Cue Card Libertarianism - index at
The Roots of Property and Libertarianism, Or, Why libertarians don’t own their own bodies - Peter Cresswell

RELATED: Libertarianism, Philosophy


  1. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the taking the time to engage (primarly with I/S but with me in passing).

    I'll blog a reply either this weekend or next and give you a heads-up when I do


  2. I'll chuck a couple of things in...

    - Property rights: What I take from your agrument is that a largish amount of protection of property is beneficial. This does not get you all the way to the absoluteness I see in your position from where I'm standing.

    Also, if this is moral point (is it?)what's the magic premise that gets you from this-is-so to we-should-do-thus? Just out of pedantic curiosity.

    - Markets: Individual choices, particularly made en masse effects the availablity of choices for others. Often in a good way, sometimes badly.

    Put it this way - I consider my assertion that it's possible for a lack of regulation in a market to leave -everyone- worse off no more faith-based that yours that it isn't.

  3. Freedom only for the strong = anarchy. Libertarianism has government to protect the weak from their rights (to their bodies and property) being attacked by the strong. Libertarians oppose the initiation of force, which is the tool of the "strong". Remember, the state is always the strongest.

    The footpath imprisonment argument is absurd. Who would buy a house without some rights to the footpath? Local footpaths and roads could be held by body corporates for the interests of local property owners.

  4. I read "desired social end" and I shivered with fear.

    It is for your own good. Yeah right.

  5. About the foot paths: as we see in South Auckland, the public foot paths are filled by prostitutes, drunks and other drug users and certain times of the day, and the people who want to go on their own businesses have to stay in their homes at such times.

  6. I/S’s “private footpaths” debate was initially with me. His argument was along the lines of what if, in a free market, all the footpaths around his house were acquired by a private concern that denied him the use of them. That, apparently, would infringe his right to liberty.

    It was a drawn out debate, and after walking through the bizarre circumstances that would have to occur for such a situation to arise, I conceded that the scenario was possible, however remotely, in a hypothetical libertarian society, but that his right to liberty was not infringed because he was *still free* to travel by helicopter, through neighbours’ back yards, etc. etc. Just as the right to free speech does not mean that someone has to provide you with a printing press, the right to liberty does not mean that someone has to provide you with a means of transport.

  7. Libertians deficating property right? That's a blatant contradiction! Contradictions cannot exist in reality. Not in part or in whole. Only in the beliefs of people can they occur. Not the use of "occur" instead of "exist". This is because our beliefs are not existence, just an attempt to recognise it.

    but it is property rights that make all other rights possible
    Indeed. As Ayn Rand said, "Without property rights no other rights can exist."

    And indeed all property, especially our own lives, the most valuable and important property we have.

    One definition biologists have given to the word human is, "the rational animal". This coincides with your statement of the mind.

    PC your market comments and your freedom ones are of course quite true. That is why my books will evolve around the idea of the free market, a free society, and rational thought.

    Lyndon, the "magic" premise is reason. Of course I wouldn't use the term magic for reason. I'd use the term "reality". Also individual choices only badly effect others if you make irrational choices. Rational choices never have "losers", only winners. PC and those like him (i.e. me) DON'T use faith. We use REASON, which uses REALITY.

    Him not being able to use the footpaths an infringement of his liberty? Rubbish! Your points of that are good, rbc, though he is only free to use the neighbour's yard if they let him. But he is still free to use the roads. Beside, the footpaths would never be sold like that anyway. It's too unrealistic.

  8. Just FYI, I don't consider myself responded to.

  9. ...That long-range protection of the values we ourselves have created is what property rights represent.

    So, let me get this straight. You define all rights as property. Then you say that you therefore need property rights to have any rights?

    Markets are simply the sum of voluntary choices taken by individuals seeking to better themselves.

    true, but... most especially, wealthy individuals.

  10. Lyndon said...
    Just FYI, I don't consider myself responded to.

    Well Lyndon, to ask a question you must first know what actually consitutes an answer!

    Oh, and it is a bit off to simply dismiss responding posts in the royal fashion. Harks of intellectual dishonesty/ or a fundamental laziness. Simply can't be bother to take the time to correct another human beings erronous thinking. Oh, the arrogabce!


  11. Sam, what it means is that without the right to property no right can exist. Look at it this way: if you arenm't allowed to do what you want with the things you own then you have no freedom and without freedom you have no true life, only a living death. A living death cannot support rights, olny life can. There are no degrees of freedom. You either have it or you don't.

    As for you Lyndon, you are wrong. I responded to your "magic premise" question.

  12. Sean - Fair enough.

    Actually it's just that work feels appallingly busy at the moment and I'm on a high threshold for my own responses.

    Perhaps I would have been better to say, "What?"

    I basically meant that as shorthand for, either Kane's comment's didn't address my comments in any significant way (except for my implications about dogmatism and bald assertions - though I release the arguments about markets are more endless than anything I want to eembark on right now) OR someone needs to explain how they do in a way even I can understand.

    I don't really want to debate, I'm just curious about the answers.

    Kane - When I asked for a premise, meant the logical kind, preferrable with the associated syllogism.

  13. Lyndon, I'm sorry you don't think you've been replied to, but I doubt whether you'll be persuaded about property rights -- a principle integrating an enormous number of concretes and other abstract principles -- only by one small blog post.

    All I can really do here with such a vast integration is to scratch the surface, as I did above.

    If you really do want to know more, then can I suggest you follow those links I offered in the post itself, perhaps read some of my posts linked under the property rights category, and for even more try some book excperts or book-length arguments.

    Ayn Rand's essay 'Man's Rights' is a good place to start (you can find it in her book 'Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal'), and Tom Bethell's book 'The Noblest Triumph' if you want a good history of the subject, and Tara Smith's book 'Moral Rights & Political Freedom' if you want philosophy.

  14. Yeah... I had a feeling this would all end in reading.


  15. I've now blogged a reply to Peter Creswell here:



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