The Logic of Liberty
Why is the libertarian philosophy of Individual Freedom and Responsibility (IF&R), the philosophy upon which our country was founded, the philosophy whose words continue to be parroted by our politicians even as they erode its remnants, such a hard sell in the 21st century? And why are we libertarians so convinced that IF&R is superior to collectivized decision making by a powerful professional political class? I am going to examine here the fundamental aspects of the two world views and perhaps examine why collectivism is so particularly attractive in some large cities like New York City and San Francisco.
Many libertarians take as their basic axiom that "You own yourself" with the immediate corollary that "you own your product". The concept of ownership is certainly at the core of the libertarian world view and the lack of individual ownership at the core of the collectivist view.
Various other words for collectivism are marxism, communism, socialism, and, generally, statism. Terms for the IF&R view are free market, laissez-faire, and capitalism.
The centrality of the notion of ownership implies that the distinctions between the world views are distinctions in the economic systems. That is in deed the essence. While many of the modern intrusions on IF&R are what may be termed nanny statism -- from the basic notion that the FDA can rule what medicines even a dying person can obtain, to the extension in NYC of the "War on (some) Drugs" to nicotine, to the Supremes' ruling that the commerce clause of the federal constitution overrides the direct referenda by the people in a number of states to end the Wo(s)D at least against ill marihuana users -- the fundamental issues are the rights of ownership and the rights to trade that which one owns with others.
Here, I will examine just the pure economic theories.
There is a tremendous body of literature of freedom going back over the centuries to the founding documents of US and their philosophical roots. I have many links to sources on my own website at www.CoSy.com/Liberty.htm#Links .
Property divides into the goods that an individual produces or acquires, generally called chattel, and real property, land and its resources. The goods individuals own include their services.
There are two alternatives for the exchange of property, choice or force. Force, of course, is primal. Within choice there are the unaccounted, generally charity
(NB: libertarians are often accused of lacking charity. That's incorrect. The issue is the locus of the decision making. We do not trust the political class with any of our decisions including the dispensing of charity.),
and the accounted. Barter is the most primitive of accounted exchanges and man soon created his most mysterious invention, money, to provide accounting of otherwise unequal trades. Man found that many exchanges were of mutual benefit and that generally accepted tokens of credit could be used to make various transactions fungible. While many collectivists, both statist and religious, disparage money, its prepotent alternative is force. And that is the tool of the state.
The real property of the globe is divided into geographical monopolies of force, established by force, called states. No matter what their internal economics, relationships between them are fundamentally either laissez-faire or force -- either trade, or war. (As Yassir Arafat said in the '80s, "with my enemies, I make friends; with my friends, I make business.)
This fact that nations act as free individuals, sovereigns, is a central reason why communism had to seek world domination or collapse, which, of course, it did. For reasons I'll touch on below, it could not compete with competition. Collectivism effectively makes a nation stupid.
The governments controlling the world's geographic monopolies have evolved essentially from gangs. The conquerors were deemed to own the whole territory and their subjects had use of portions of it only by the ruler's grace. The modern collective dictatorship is structured much the same way. Power accrues as you rise within the monopoly political structure.
To define terms, power is a right to use force; a right is a freedom to choose. In a nutshell, the rule of the market place is choice. Its essential logic is or and its adverb is any. You may do or not do business with any counterparty you can find. The tool of the state is force. Its essential logic is and and its adverb is all. All must, each and everyone must abide by the dictates of the state under peril of the use of force.
This logic is the reason why a collective society is effectively dumber than a free society.Being dumber, its standard of living always lags.
A free society moves forward at the speed of its best. There is powerful incentive for any innovation to be made available to all potential consumers of that advance. In statist countries like the old USSR, China, and India for example, individuals could not just go ahead and gather the capital from any willing investors to actualize the inovation, or to offer it thru any outlet willing to promote it. Every new thought had to be channeled thru the state monopoly's bureaucrats whose power rested in the ability to say "no". (The "state" in a strong sense is a fiction; in any transaction you must deal with individuals.)
Thus Sony and Nissan and Mitsubishi in free market Japan did as much to take down the Soviet Union as anything the west did. The US itself has had a tough time competing with them; a controlled economy didn't have a prayer.
An artist friend of mine really liked my analogy of a central computer versus distributed processing units. Back in the '60s and '70s the sci-fi scenarios were about a few mainframe supercomputers controlling the world. This is still the vision of many politicians -- that somehow the greatest intelligence can be collected at the center and all decisions radiate from there. FEMA is a contemporary example.
But with computers that's not what happened. Instead millions of small computers proliferated whose individual power was miniscule but in sum greatly outstriped any supercomputer. And the competitive market forces have evolved those personal computers to the point where anyone can buy a 64 bit computer, super by the standards of a decade ago, for about $600 and will most likely have no better use for its power than video games. The result is vast intelligence and communications distributed thru the population making even Hillary Clinton question whether the traditional state is becoming obsolete in the new millennium.
One of the classical liberal conundrums when the US was being founded, and which may be with us always (it is a major theme in "The Day the Earth Stood Still" , 1951), is how does society control a police force which, by construction, is more powerful than the individual himself?
Democracy brings a bit of market choice to the selection of those in power and brings a bit of an answer. (A vote is like having a dollar to spend among a couple of choices every couple of years; every dollar you spend every day is like a vote for a particular counterparty among all your choices.) But unlike ordinary market decisions, your political vote is pooled with all other citizens and you are subject to their collective choice. As is often noted, democracy is far from a sufficient defense of IF&R; it's just that it's better than the alternative. (If you want to find out how stacked in favor of the reigning political duopoly our system here is, just get active with the Manhattan LP.)
To return to the inextricable link between individual property ownership and liberty, there are basically two ways to allocate the territory of a country. As said earlier, the classic structure was that the state, in the person of the ruler, was deemed to own the lot and citizens had no unalienable property rights. By the time of the founding of US, ownership was structured so that individuals could possess their own little piece of the continent which was deemed secure even from search and seizure by the state. In Huey Long's words, though not his meaning: "every man a king".
Of course that's one of those bullets in the Bill of Rights that's just a historical footnote now that the Supremes have ruled that your town's politicians and their friends have ultimate ownership of your house and land.
This very brief column just touches on some of the basic concepts which underlie libertarian's belief in personal property rights and the free market as the optimal political-economic structure.
Many issues such as the tragedy of the commons, externalities (pollution), the freeloader problem, and more must be left for another time. I will emphasize again the existence of a vast and tightly reasoned literature of freedom. Perhaps no group has more Nobel winning economists it can call its own than libertarians.
I'll close with simply a few comments on why, given the historically demonstrated material advantage of freedom over political control which can be seen around the world, do New Yorkers cling to their stale liberal (in the 20th century meaning) trust in leaving their decisions to the political class.
Of course first of all, quite a few belong to the political class and enjoy their bailiwicks of power over their fellow citizens.
And there are many who are afraid of the market place - a fear which politicians exploit. The salient example of this is rent control. At its worst rent control contributed to huge tracts being abandoned in the Bronx and Lower East Side among other neighborhoods as landlords were squeezed into abandonment between rising costs and taxes and rent caps. Now rent controls are seen more and more as idiosyncratic and often politically connected favored treatment , with little connection to need , of some renters over the majority . One only has to compare New York with cities with free rental markets to see that on mean controls at best accomplish nothing but keeping a sizeable bureaucracy's rice bowls full.
Finally, there's that "R" in IF&R. The politicians try to delude their constituents (and often themselves) that they do not have to take fundamental responsibility for their health or old age or children's education. But, note that as government involvement and centralization of those fields has increased, they have become among the most expensive and worst performing areas of the economy.
The crowning example of abdication of responsibility because "that the state's responsibility" is charity, the very area socialists claim as the most pressing need for the use of force. Anybody who's stepped over or around a derelict on the street or subway knows the state fails to touch these people. But individually you don't have to think about it; that's what you are taxed for. The fact is, that because the state has taken monopoly control over most charity dollars, you do not have control over your own resources to make choices among agencies you know to be efficient and responsible.