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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

The Church of Property: Part II

This is a continuation of a series that was started here, which begins to ask a question: are absolute property rights ultimately compatible with libertarianism?  This article will continue to expand on that question.


I am a software engineer.  And when I say that, I don’t mean that I’m just a computer programmer.  Rather, I work for a fairly large company, where I work on parsers, compilers and optimizers. 

My job is logic-intensive; it requires a firm grasp on the concept of mathematical truth, in that a lot of the work I do when dealing with logic optimization, is creating programs that accept logical instructions as input, and output optimized (or simplified) logical instructions on output.  It goes without saying that compiler optimization is one of the most sophisticated and erudite practices within the broader software engineering field. 

I mention this not to qualify myself, but rather to provide an insight onto the type of thought process I am accustomed to.  I am and always have been, fairly predisposed to pedantic analytical thinking.

In software engineering--as in the broader field of mathematics--we employ a process called regression analysis as a method of predicting future behaviour of a logical system.   In software engineering, that’s really a very technical way of saying: we look for bugs.

But regression analysis is something that all logical thinkers do--in general.  It is essentially what a philosopher is doing when they perform thought experiments.  They are testing the behaviour of a logical system by asserting a test case against that system to determine how that system behaves when presented with a particular set of variables.

It might come as no surprise then, that a great number of software engineers--at least ones in my kind of work--tend to have at least a passing interest in philosophy.   Software engineering, is after all, an extension of a form of philosophy; computer science is a subset of mathematics and therefore, the philosophy of science.  Software engineering explores--in quite a direct way--the practice of exploring and employing mathematical truths as means of describing systems, which is an entire school of philosophy in and of itself.  Which is why it’s quite correct to suggest--as many philosophers do and should--that you ultimately owe all of your modern creature comforts to the schools of philosophy in one way or another.

The reason for this preamble will become clear as we move on into the core points of this article.

Libertarianism is a term that describes a set of philosophies (plural) that seek to maximize personal liberty.  To be clear: libertarianism is not one, single, philosophy.  There is much diversity and disagreement within the libertarian set of philosophies about the role of the state, the exceptions to liberty, and as this article explores, the limits of property rights.

Maximizing liberty is to imply that a libertarian accepts--implicitly--that maximum liberty is unattainable or rather, undesirable.  Some of these limits are self-evident in libertarian philosophy;  I cannot punch you in the face just because I want to.  In a declarative logic system we might say:


This is a beautiful logical expression.  And it’s self consistent.  It doesn’t fully describe the libertarian ideal, but it does immediately create a logical system that makes clear that murder must be wrong, since this is declarative logic.  Any scenario which would result in any person not having life, violates the logical assertion.  The logic has no way of regressing, either.  No set of input variables results in a scenario in which the person cannot have life.  It is a perfectly self-consistent, closed, logical system.

In yesterday’s article--in the comments--Terrence Watson and myself provided three regression tests as it pertains to the absolute right to property.

Terrence provided the following regression test:

You buy all the land around Sally's house, which - to take the metaphor - means now there is a moral force field around her house. But let's make it a literal bubble: You put up walls of plastic stretching into the sky, all around Sally's house.

Given the right to exclude, Sally is obligated not to try to break through those walls. It would be morally wrong for her to cross over your land in an attempt to get food or water.

But of course you haven't coerced Sally, haven't done anything unjust to her from a libertarian point of view. At the same time, your actions have effectively crippled her autonomy.

So the question: suppose we accept that there is no divide between self-ownership and stuff-ownership. It's one force field and it applies to both you and to the stuff you've labored on (or something like that.) This means that when Sally cuts through the plastic, she's done violence to you. This means -- I'm assuming -- that you would be fully justified in shooting her in the head as she tries to make her escape. After all, she just tried to break into your property with a blow torch!

Intuitively, was it permissible to shoot her?

Now assume that there is a divide between self-ownership and stuff-ownership, one that works out in this way: self-ownership is absolute. No one can use your kidneys without your consent. But stuff-ownership is not absolute. Every once in a while, when it's necessary to give someone any shot at all of living an autonomous life, the stuff force field can be bent, manipulated a little.

In this case, if you refuse to ease your force field to accomplish some moral goal or protect certain values, Sally does nothing wrong when she ignores the field, and you are not justified in shooting her. Rather, you've committed murder, because you used violence in a way that, under the circumstances, was not permissible.

And I provided the example where-as, a private individual buys a plot of land, and establishes a private town to the exclusion of homosexuals.  The second example I provided was an example where-as a private individual establishes monopoly ownership over all effective public spaces (roads, sidewalks).

I should note that: as of this writing, no libertarians have attempted to address these two regressions.   The only responses that have been offered have been philosophical statements about non-aggression, that I do not believe provide a satisfactory response to Terrence’s wall-dilemma or my private community dilemma.

I assert that these are particularly bad regressions in the libertarian philosophy of absolute property rights.  They are bad because they result in property rights, ultimately taking precedence over other people’s ability to be autonomous agents;  Sally can no longer leave her house, and will likely starve to death, because the person who built a wall around her house has property rights that supersedes her need to leave in order to have a livelihood.

This is an extreme example.  But it’s an example that is perfectly compatible with libertarian principles.  Which leads two one of two conclusions about most property absolutist libertarians. a) either they think it’s sufficiently unlikely it will not happen (the security through obscurity argument); or b) they simply don’t care if this type of thing happens (they worship at the Church of Property).

I assert that if the answer is “a”, then I’m highly suspicious of your faith in market and humanity.  If your answer is “b”, then I assert you cannot be a libertarian--you’re an egoist that is principally concerned with your property, up to and including the demise of Sally. 

I received an e-mail response to my article, that set up what I think is a ridiculously false dichotomy. If you don’t believe in absolute property rights: you’re a socialist.  And some of the comments in the previous article seemed to sing a similar tune if not outright coming out and saying it.

Absolute property rights is asserted as being a sacred, untouchable, non-negotiable element of many libertarian's core philosophies.  And the more and more I think about it, the more I think that such libertarians are not motivated by the maximization of liberty, but rather the maximization of wealth potential; I think these are two completely different things, and the difference is exemplified by Terrence’s wall example, and my monopoly over public space example. 

If I can own all the roads in the country--including the roads on which your home's driveway is connected--I can arbitrarily forbid you have driving on, or crossing the road.  I can, without building a physical wall--as Terrence’s example does--build an invisible wall around you.

I can demand that only white people drive on the roads that I own.  I bought them, I maintain them, and I charge for their use.  It’s my property.  Anybody who enters my property who has been expressly forbidden from crossing onto my property, will be interpreted in a libertarian framework, as committing an act of violence against me; Jimmy--who’s a black man--just wants to go to the supermarket and buy some food.  But if he steps on my property, given that I’ve made it clear that black men are not allowed, I will have one of my road security people shoot him.  It’s nothing personal.  I’m just defending my property in accordance with my free association rights.

I assert, as Terrence does, that this type of scenario effectively places property above individual liberty itself--to it’s absolute and demonstrable detriment. In this sense, absolute property rights libertarians have a glaring regression test failure starting them in the eyes, as their philosophy cannot rectify this problem outside of simply damning Sally and Jimmy to death--or boycotting RoadCo Inc.--oh wait, never mind.

The argument used against this, is that publicly administered roads have the same potential.  That, the government can be racist, and engage in the same sort of exclusionary behaviour.

I don’t think this is a good argument.  Firstly because a liberal constitutional democracy, codifies in law, that the application of public property must not be discriminatory.  Also, Sally and Jimmy have political representation in the body that administers the public property.  Where-as, it is not likely they will have any representation in WallCo Inc. or RoadCo Inc.  The public, democratic model has a system of redress, and the private model may or may not.  That’s up to the whim of the private property owner.

It is also a particularly bad argument in the sense that it concedes that private authority can be just as evil and even more evil than public authority.  In fact, it doesn’t deal with the problem that private authority can, through monopoly, effectively become the supreme authority.  Which in my view, is the ultimate failed regression; liberty dies in practice, on the mantle of private property.

Posted by Mike Brock on May 5, 2009 in Libertarianism | Permalink


This is very thought-provoking and has really managed to shake my faith in absolute property rights. So I thank you and damn you simultaneously!

I consider(ed) myself pretty absolutist about property rights and I must confess that I cannot unravel these dilemmas. So you've really managed to throw a wrench into the gears.

I think my fear is: how far does this rabbit hole go? How little protection is property afforded if we accept this problem? Can you expand on that?

Posted by: Daniel | 2009-05-05 1:13:34 PM


I must first admit that I haven't yet read this post or your previous one very carefully.

But stuff like this leads me to question your rigour: "I should note that: as of this writing, no libertarians have attempted to address these two regressions."

Are you really sure that this two issues have not addressed by any libertarians? Did you check to see whether there is already an extensive libertarian literature on 'encirclement' and the common law solution of 'easements'? In particular, are you confident that Walter Block hasn't written dozens of articles and a recent book on the sorts of issues raised in Terrence's regression? Further, are you certain that Block didn't try to address this question in his 2004 paper in Vol. 31 International Journal of Social Economics entitled Libertarianism, positive obligations and property abandonment: children's rights?

Just wondering.

Posted by: Kalim Kassam | 2009-05-05 1:30:21 PM

Mike ....rational and logical people do not chase perfection as they come to understanding (usually by a trial and error) that this kind of attitude leads to utopia. A software for all and any task serving everybody and anybody will not be invented, period. You have stumbled into fallacy that political system or political conviction is the answer to all the problems, sorrows and pains. Public authority is nothing more then private people renting or being force to surrender private authority and their property rights to other people who are often at the mercy of own imperfect human nature. Furthermore it can be argued that faults in human nature is escalated by elevating some to position of making decisions for others including the power to confiscate property (through direct or indirect taxation). Public authority is a condition inviting immoral set-up , private is as good as people are. Saying this, I understand that there is a need to moderate and/or facilitate relations within a society, which is far away from the present situation where egomaniacs try to prove how they are better then egomaniacs from the other political party, self-centered on their ideological, religious and PRIVATE views.

(Hey, in the shadows of logic falling on personal life, nothing sooths like the musing of Kurt Godel.)

Posted by: xiat | 2009-05-05 1:32:31 PM

"I should note that: as of this writing, no libertarians have attempted to address these two regressions."

Kalim, the statement was meant to read as: none of the libertarians who were responding to my specific article chose to address those points. It wasn't meant to be interpreted as a broad statement implying that no libertarians have undertaken this dilemma. I am not that vain.

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2009-05-05 1:34:47 PM


I understand where you are coming from this - and where you are going. I once spent many month debating this very issue with David Friedman.

I think -- there is a problem with reasoning backwards to find the flaw in this instance.

Let me just say this - what you are presenting here is very excellent and technical approach to defining morality.

I appreciate it. I love it actually. You've put a tremendous amount of work and some really excellent thinking into it.

I would ask-- one thing. If this discussion - which I believe deserves a thoughtful and well considered response devolves into another silly piss fest. - would you be kind enough to carry it over to another place, or in private.

There is an incredible amount of thought that you have provoked with this- and I really look forward to posting on this soon. I just wanted to get that request out of the way before the games begin in earnest on this post.

I wish ALL the posts on the Shotgun were like this one. You'd never get rid of me.

Posted by: MW | 2009-05-05 1:35:38 PM

Mike...Public authority is not an abstract. It is a group of a wise man who talks directly to a higher being and knows what is good and what is wrong:))))

Posted by: xiat | 2009-05-05 1:40:52 PM


Your rebuttal in saying a government probably won't have this situation (in your 3rd and 2nd last paragraphs) really is just another version of the "the security through obscurity argument" that you claimed the other libetarians are using. I don't see why you should be allowed to get away with it, but they can't.

You can argue all you want over which if this scenario is more likely to happen with pure private property or not, but you are using the same justification.

Posted by: William Joseph | 2009-05-05 1:51:15 PM


I should clarify: I am not asserting a solution to this problem. But I am rejecting the propertarian argument that the absolute property rights model is better than the democratically administered public property model.

They can both be demonstrated to have their flaws. But I don't have to prove one is better in order to to expose the flaws of one or the other. So your comment is a bit tangential, and a red herring.

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2009-05-05 1:53:46 PM

To start with:


Any scenario which would result in any person not having life, violates the logical assertion. The logic has no way of regressing, either. No set of input variables results in a scenario in which the person cannot have life. It is a perfectly self-consistent, closed, logical system."

Except- when you have not defined what a person is -- nor have you defined what constitutes life -- the principle being invoked can be easily refuted, disputed. Say - Abortion, Euthanasia

Also.. "maximizing liberty" is a good chosen value for libertarians. But once again -- the problem is a lack of definition of "liberty".
Here's a problem with the utilitarian approach to solving problems involving human action - Say that the whole world agrees that (for example) unemployment is a problem. When the goal is "maximizing employment" - that can be done quite easily, especially if you live IN A SLAVE STATE.

Liberty requires a number of things. One of those things in order to be achieved -- (not BECAUSE we WANT to be free, but because in order to live life as a human BEING -- we need to be free.) is that human beings in order to live AS human beings need the freedom to chose their own values - and they also require the freedom not to be stopped from attempting to achieve or aquiring those values (so long as force or fraud are not instigated aganinst others)

The reason a human being needs that freedom to chose is because of our nature as human beings. No person is omniscient. No person is infallible. No person CAN know another human being enough to be able decide BETTER for that person what their chosen values will be -- better than that person themselves. Because human beings can (and do) make mistakes, they need to have the freedom to choose how they wish to pursue their chosen values.

The reason we respect the "rights" of others to live freely is because to do otherwise is assume that we know better than they do about how THEY can best live and enjoy their life. OR -- in bleaker and starker terms... the reason I should not instigate force against others (punch somebody in the nose) is because if I deny them the freedom to chose their values (say - like enjoying a life where they don't suffer from violent attacks) then it is far more likely that others will revoke my choices or try to steal my aquired values. Recognizing the right of others to NOT be interferred with (so long as they are not interferring with others) is BOTH a validation of myself and others as human beings, possssed of a specific nature (Man qua Man) AND a means by which (via such theories of various contractarians etc) I protect my own rights.

Back to "maximizing liberty" as a chosen value. First -- maximizing liberty is ONLY a means by which I as a human being and other human beings can better live AS human beings. Maximizing Liberty is not an ends in and of itself.

You need to ask yourself the following question: Maximing liberty? According to *what* values - according to who?

Posted by: MW | 2009-05-05 1:59:54 PM

I disagree. You are saying their argument isn't good and you argue it using the same flaw you say they had in their logic. It is reasonable to say that you can always want private property and then to discount your criticism by saying that type of situation, while both possible and crappy, is less likely to happen.

Posted by: William Joseph | 2009-05-05 1:59:55 PM

"Liberty requires a number of things. One of those things in order to be achieved -- (not BECAUSE we WANT to be free, but because in order to live life as a human BEING -- we need to be free.) is that human beings in order to live AS human beings need the freedom to chose their own values - and they also require the freedom not to be stopped from attempting to achieve or aquiring those values"


I think this is a good point, and it sheds light on the Sally example.

Why? Well, inside her plastic prison, Sally has been stopped from achieving or acquiring values. Sure, she might have a potato garden and a well. She can eat potatoes all day and she won't die from dehydration.

But she'll never read any new books, or hear any new music, or come into contact with any other people.

I agree with you that property is required so that people can have a place to stand, free from interference, so they can develop their talents, capacities, and so on. But the question is this: does this function of property require an absolute right to exclude? One that holds no matter what else is true?

Does this function of property presuppose an unlimited right to acquire, so that one may come to own every watering hole in the desert?

I'm unconvinced. If Jones loses his right to absolutely forbid Sally from crossing his land - even to make her escape - his property can still fulfill the function we're ascribing to it. Losing this part of his property rights, he actually loses very little. And Sally has a lot to gain, in terms of her own liberty.



Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-05-05 2:15:16 PM


I would like to have the opportunity of this article to steer your attention to a different subject. As a computer engineer you know that an efficient system should distributed, redundant, decentralized and possibly self-replicating. The public authority as we know is analogical to a very slow mainframe. Would you mind to write an article making comparison between computer and socio-political systems?

Posted by: xiat | 2009-05-05 2:15:40 PM

"It would be morally wrong for her to cross over your land in an attempt to get food or water."

It would be a violation of your property rights for Sally to go on your land without your permission. However -- you have not violated Sally's rights by purchasing all the land around her. Nobody does own or can own the sky. Similarly -- ownership of land does not work the way you are describing. The option to cross your airspace - or build a tunnel over would always be available.

Also.. as a purely technical matter - it would be impossible to build a bubble around Sally.. (an actual bubble made of plastic) without actually stepping on her land. So -- you would not have the right to even make such an attempt -- and if you did try to do so -- she would be well within her rights to shoot you or kill you, if you tresspassed on her land.

If you can make up a scenario where you aren't violating the laws of physics, or reality in trying to claim that this is an actual situation -- it might be a more plausible attempt to refute absolute property rights.

Posted by: MW | 2009-05-05 2:18:00 PM


The example logical statement intended that you take the meaning of "PERSON" and "LIFE" for granted.

While there are perfectly valuable and necessary arguments to be made about what constitutes a person, what constitutes a life, and the exact meaning of liberty itself, I think in the context of the argument being made here, those arguments are semantic.

Perhaps I'm wrong: but I think for the sake or argument, people have a sufficiently clear idea about what I mean by that example.

To answer your main question about what maximizing liberty means, which I think is somewhat valid to this question, because we're directly talking about liberty itself, contrasted against property rights--is that the values of liberty are described in accordance with the principle of self-ownership and one's authority over themselves.

That's about as clear as I can get right now.

At some point you're simply making a value preference between whether you think the individual is the most valuable unit of society, and whether or not individuals are the basis for any legitimate authority--which of course I do as a libertarian.

There are a deluge of justifications as to why this model is preferable. For me it's because I claim the right for myself. I am my own justification. And I do not seek legitimacy from anyone else. I proclaim the right to myself, and that's that.

In addition to that, there are various utilitarian and other justifications as to why this model is the best and many philosophical paths one can take to arrive at the relatively same conclusion.

In my case, a self-assertion of my own rights to myself is as good as any. :)

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2009-05-05 2:23:28 PM


I'll put my cards on the table. I've never studied philosophy or political science. Hell, I'm not even 100% sure I'm a libertarian (I do know I'm definately not liberal or conservative). But I think I can respond logically to a few things.

If I build a moral forcefield around your house, making it impossible for you to leave without crossing into my property and then state that I will shoot you on site if you do cross, I have used coersion and I am threatening you with violence. I really don't care whether that's not violent from a libertarian perspective, you have every right to cross over into my property, shoot me in the head, and go feed yourself. I have violated your right to life, and that trumps property rights.

As for your example, which I admittedly did not fully comprehend last night, is very difficult to answer. I don't think it would ever happen but you do have a point. The chance of this scenario being played out, however, should be weighed carefully against the disadvantages of gov't ownership. I still think we are better off with private ownership of most assets.

Posted by: Charles | 2009-05-05 2:25:16 PM

"Rational and logical people do not chase perfection"

True. Rational people do however embrace reality (instead of denying it, or pretending that it doesn't matter)- Rational people also embrace logic as the means by which we can best use our minds to determine what is real and what is not.

This discussion is not about some search for a mythical never-never land of gumdrops and rainbows and unicorns where everybody is happy all the time.

It's a discussion about the nature of rights - what they are, why we have them and need them to be respected in order to live a human beings acording to our very real nautures as human beings

Posted by: MW | 2009-05-05 2:35:43 PM

Just a few things:

Not all libertarians are of the "maximize liberty" variety. Some, especially the ones you are addressing, are of the "defend private property" variety, regardless of whether or not it will maximize liberty. (In fact, the maximize liberty variety of libertarian won't have the problem you set out -- Sally can cross the plastic wall and violate private property rights because it would, ex hypothesi, maximize liberty).

Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, and other famous libertarians, for example, explicitly reject maximization of any value as a goal. Instead, we have certain rights that serve as side-constraints on our morally acceptable behaviour. Whether or not adhering to rights maximizes liberty is a separate question, one that neither Rand nor Nozick will care much about.

The variant of libertarianism you are having quibbles with is sometimes termed propertarianism. I think G.A. Cohen called this kind of libertarian that, and insisted that what these folks care about is not liberty, but property. (These libertarians respond that our conception of liberty will necessarily require a particular view about property -- one that includes, a la Locke, liberty as a *kind* of property -- and so a non-property-based story about liberty will be incoherent.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-05-05 2:40:27 PM


I shouldn't have said bubble.. I'm a little more careful at another point. It's just a bunch of walls, stretching into the sky. But I see no theoretical reason he couldn't construct the walls without stepping on to her land. He just puts them at the very boundaries of his property.

And I agree with you that _in fact_ property law has evolved in such a way so as to permit Sally a right to exit. My question is: what kind of moral right does she have, if any? (Another question: how should we morally evaluate this aspect of property law?)

If by cutting through the plastic Sally is in fact inflicting violence on the person, then - given libertarian principles - it becomes permissible for him to kill her. He has that right. Intuitively, it looks more like he's murdered her.

So something has to give.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-05-05 2:40:32 PM


Propertarian would probably be the more accurate term. But here's a question: are propertarians libertarians?

(I know, I know: propertarians can be libertarians. But are they libertarians by definition?)

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-05-05 2:47:01 PM

William Joseph started a critique of your claim about the relative effectiveness of political vs. market responses to the road scenario you sketched, but I'm not sure if you're sufficiently aware of just how devastating this comparison really is.

This is a tangent, as you point out. The comparison has nothing to say about the internal problems.

The market is "democratic" (at least in a very obvious sense): Your dollar is your vote. There is a second level of democracy to all "public" companies (those that offer shares in a company): if you buy stocks, you can vote at shareholder meetings.

So Jimmy, the hypothetical black guy who wants to buy some food at the supermarket, can buy stock in the company. Suppose there are 100,000 stockholders. His "market power" is at 1 in 100,000.

By comparison, suppose Jimmy is in a community of 200,000 citizens who can vote in the local election. Jimmy's power is at 1 in 200,000.

Jimmy is more powerful on the market, rather than in politics. So the likelihood that Jimmy will get to go to the supermarket is less on the political model than it is on the market model (assuming racists).

It's worse, of course, on the political model. When you call a company and tell them you're not happy with something, almost no matter what the size of the company, they will do what they can to make you happy (or, at least, less furious). McDonald's has an explicit policy of giving you free things if you complain. I don't know of any government that has anything resembling McDonald's awesome conflict resolution mechanism.

If you're pissed off at the state, good luck trying to get enough people in your coalition to change anything at all.

This is a tangent, but I'm convinced that your power as an individual consumer is several thousand times greater than your power as an individual voter.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-05-05 2:49:37 PM

Stupid captcha made one of my longer comments disappear!

I haven't the heart to re-write all of that... Oh what a sad moment.

Maybe I'll re-write it later. Just now, I'm getting over this crushed feeling in my chest.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-05-05 2:51:05 PM

This discussion might be helped if the participants did some research into the legal principle of right of egress. Basically, this is a long-held legal principle that no one can be barred from either leaving or entering their own property.

The dilemma contained in the example could be resolved with a simple question: who was there first? If Sally was there first, then it is a clear violation of her property rights to bar egress to and from her property. If the surrounding property owners were there first, it is unlikely that Sally would have purchased the property in the first place, if only because accessing it might be a nuisance and not necessarily because it might be dangerous.

Right of egress evolved over time, and continues to evolve, to deal with situations similar to the one stated.

Posted by: Dennis | 2009-05-05 2:51:40 PM


Yes, I think so.

A propertarian is necessarily a libertarian. But a libertarian isn't necessarily a propertarian.

Put differently (because I'm anal): It is a sufficient condition for X to count as a libertarian if X is a propertarian, but it isn't a necessary condition.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-05-05 2:54:24 PM


I use that very same justification to advance the "good of the market". However, I believe there is a problem with deviation from the mean.

Liberal democracy vs. populist democracy is an example of a similar problem. Liberal democracy in essence is the rejection of the idea that the majority can run roughshod over the rights of the minority; you can't hold a referendum on whether or not to kill Mike Brock. Even if you did, and the results were 100% in favour, the constitution says: no, the body politic does not have the authority to determine the value of Mike Brock's life.

So if we're talking about comparing an absolute free market, with absolute property rights to a liberal democratic system of the administration of public spaces, I think the comparison is immediately flawed. Quite simply, because the liberal democracy accepts the idea that democracy itself must have limits.

So the argument for the absolute democratic market, with people buying shares in companies, and voting with their dollars is analogous to populist democracy, not liberal democracy.

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2009-05-05 2:59:53 PM


We are all well-aware that legal principles exist to prevent such a scenario. This discussion proposes that propertarian principles would require repeal of such laws.

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2009-05-05 3:00:55 PM


I agree that law has evolved to deal with the kind of situation I described. But therein lies a dilemma:

Sally's right to exit seems to presuppose that Jones' property rights are not absolute. It can't be, I think, that Jones can both forbid Sally from crossing his land AND that Sally has a right to leave the land.

One of those rights has to give. If it's Jones' absolute right to exclude, then we already have a case in which the right to exclude doesn't hold absolutely.

In other words, it isn't the case that Jones can always exclude others, including Sally, from making use of his land. If she wants to leave, he's morally obligated to acquiesce. He has to let her pass.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-05-05 3:01:37 PM


Hm, ok. I'll just tell you what I think is odd.

A liberal is not, by definition, a libertarian. A utilitarian is not, by definition, a libertarian. A social conservative is not, by definition, a libertarian.

We both agree that they all can be libertarians, as long as they support something like the minimal state.

But a propertarian is necessarily a libertarian. There's something incongruous here I can't quite put my finger on. I wonder what Kripke would say...

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-05-05 3:08:29 PM

Aren't we forgetting the profit motive here? I'm a professional investor and have never heard of a shareholder or debtholder who would accept reduced profits in order to discriminate against a certain group.

Posted by: Charles | 2009-05-05 3:09:14 PM


Let me know if you make any advances on why it's odd that a propertarian would necessarily count as a libertarian. I just happen to think that a propertarian is a special kind of libertarian, and not something else. If you think property rights should be absolute, you're a libertarian. Since not all libertarians believe in absolute property rights, we might use "propertarian" to distinguish this special sub-class.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-05-05 3:14:25 PM


Liberal democracies often do limit referendas by appeal to something like a constitution (or a charter). That's true. But in the specific examples that we're citing, the constitution would need to be appended, wouldn't it?

What principle in the U.S. constitution or Canadian Charter makes "not selling to Jimmy" illegal? (Or not permitting Jimmy access to public streets?)

Seems to me like that's just the sort of thing that is either open to populist democratic decision making even under a Constitution, or we simply revert back to Constitutional design.

Since this is an in principle question, and not a question to be settled by appealing to actually existing Constitutions, we need to see what Constitutions racists would agree to be bound by. And I think that they would include, say, a specific bit of text permitting slavery (to take an obvious example).

If we're permitted to use actually existing Constitutions, and we're permitted to ignore the slavery clause in the U.S. Constitution, as well as the "separate but equal" debate, then I should be permitted to point to market behaviour as it happens in Canada and the U.S. And the outcome is near identical (better on the market, actually, since, for example, Martin Luther King's Alabama bus boycott was a boycott against a law that resulted in bus companies being fined. Those bus companies were busy delivering a service to blacks in violation of the law, because their market incentives motivated them to serve blacks).

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-05-05 3:21:00 PM


There are a couple of ways to go. We both know that a certain strand of libertarian will claim that all and only propertarians are libertarians. Ok, so they're wrong.

I'm thinking about a propertarian who wants to buy the land around every gay person's house and then starve them to death, thereby cleansing the world of the ghey. Perhaps Hoppe would be a fan of such a proposal.

It just doesn't seem very libertarian to me, at least in spirit. And, if successful, it would deprive a bunch of people of their liberty. Or, at least, so I'd argue (if not liberty then autonomy.)

You can certainly believe in absolute property rights as a means to diminishing the liberty of others.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-05-05 3:24:04 PM


Universal and static reality is a matter of faith, so is complete and consistent logic. It is like chasing a perfection on a unicorn.
Ok..let me try once again: Rational and logical people knowing about the limitation of human mind recognize that "public authority" is an abstract creation of such mind in order to compromise where private tangible property is real and should be not compromised.
The problem of Sally is also an abstract one, because in reality there is "the right of way" and before become the owner of the land she would legally secured the escape route with whomever was the neighbor on adjustment property. Of course there is a question for libertarians, what if the roads are private and Sally is not able to pay for the use? Although it is more of a question on private and common space, not the rights of authority.

Posted by: xiat | 2009-05-05 3:31:50 PM


Okay, let me back up and protest as to why this became an either-or proposition? I don't think that was what I was trying to do with the contrasting in the article. But so be it. Pandora's box is open.

I flatly reject that market forces will universally beholden to a rational, profit motive. Not only do I reject this, it doesn't take very much experience to see it in practice.

Have you been to Japan, and see the "Japanese People Only" signs on Sushi houses? I have. (http://www.japanprobe.com/wp-content/uploads/japanese-only.jpg)

Why is profit motive not overriding this? I don't get it. It must. It's so clear. That market perfectly resolves discrimination... in the end. Just wait around for the anomalies to deviate to their mean.

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2009-05-05 3:33:03 PM

I agree that that's not the kind of libertarian I like or approve of. Still, it seems to me like they do count as (pretty obviously) libertarian.

If you believe in absolute individual property rights, you just are a libertarian. That there are hypothetical thought experiments demonstrating that liberty and property can sometimes come apart is true, but irrelevant, I would think, to these libertarians.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-05-05 3:36:38 PM

"Universal and static reality is a matter of faith, so is complete and consistent logic"

Really? Are you teling me that nothing can be known to be real or true - absolutely?

Posted by: MW | 2009-05-05 3:38:29 PM


No, no, no, all I was saying is that market forces are superior, not that they are perfect.

When comparing the market "resolution" to the problem of racism and the (liberal or populist) democratic "resolution", we are comparing two imperfect systems of resolving the problem. Both will fail in certain ways. The argument is that the failure rate of the market will not be as pronounced or egregious as the democratic one.

The claim isn't that the profit motive must lead to non-racism. There are plenty of obvious cases where it won't work. The claim is that the profit-motive puts pressure on business people to have a non-racist policy.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-05-05 3:40:20 PM


You'll forgive me if I find the idea of calling someone who wants a group of (innocent) people to have no liberty at all a little weird.

What if after buying the land, the propertarian made the people on the inside a deal: "We'll let you out, but only if you agree to serve as slaves for X number of years"?

Ok, ok, big tent.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-05-05 3:44:08 PM

Sorry, I meant to say:

I find it weird to call someone a libertarian who thinks a group of people ought not have any liberty at all.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-05-05 3:46:49 PM


Even if I accept what you're saying as true, it's tangential to the criticism that absolute private property is troublesome to liberty.

I don't accept what you're saying completely, though. Im highly skeptical of what is essentially the regression towards the mean argument.

To say: no matter what variance and anomaly in the system, it will always regress towards it's mean state.

It just so happens that I accept this as almost a universal law in any complex system. But I reject it as the basis for allowing unrestricted property rights, because trends towards and away from the mean line of the system (and by mean I mean most just) may be either short-lived or incredibly long-lived--lasting from just a few days to an entire lifetime, depending on the breadth and scope of anomaly and it's force strength in the system.

Such strong systemic anomalies in a system, often suffer from responses that over-compensate, and can create a whip-lash effect that pulls away from the mean in the opposite direction, resulting in a negative force against liberty along another axis.

This to me, makes me ask, if we should have thresholds along those axis's where the government steps in to prevent deviation beyond a certain tolerance?

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2009-05-05 3:51:52 PM


The relevant distinction, in my mind, is whether or not they believe in absolute private property. If they do, then they're libertarians.

They might want absolute private property rights for these awful purposes, but that doesn't make them any less libertarian. It just means they don't really care about liberty. And isn't that the libertarian-based objection to the propertarian-libertarian?

I'm also just doing conceptual analysis here. I also think that some pretty standard libertarian-bearers fit this mould. Ayn Rand and Robert Nozick, to name two, come to mind. So does Hoppe and many of the Austrians. (They don't want to eliminate anyone's freedom, near as I can tell, they just think that absolute property rights is consistent with liberty, and probably think that there are no exceptions or cases where absolute property rights conflict with liberty. We've raised a few cases).

Nozick makes an *exception* to his libertarian story when he talks about the last well in the desert. He thinks absolute property rights is what libertarianism comes to.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-05-05 3:53:48 PM


Isn't Japan a liberal democracy?

So the "Japanese people only" signs are examples where both the market and liberal democracy fail.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-05-05 3:54:52 PM

Maybe my problem is that I'm having trouble wrapping my head around the idea of a libertarian who doesn't care about liberty.

Come on, Jaws. Doesn't that sound at least a bit contradictory to you? :-)

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2009-05-05 3:58:47 PM


Cool. Tangent over. I was just saying this:

Assume a bunch of racists. Assume we want the racism to have a minimum or negligible impact on those who are subject to the racism. Which system, market, populist, liberal democracy is better?

If the question is put like that, I side with the market.

If the question is: Assume a bunch of racists. Will the market eliminate racism?

My answer is: no.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-05-05 4:00:58 PM


I've sort of pre-responded to your comment about Japan in the last comment. But I'm not trying to say liberal democracies solve all the problems. I've made no attempt to do so. But I remain to be convinced that a complete disengagement of all anti-discrimination codes, coupled with absolute property protections will result in a more favourable outcome.

On a side note: "... that doesn't make them any less libertarian. It just means they don't really care about liberty ."

I just have to ask an open question about word-usage to everyone here: if someone doesn't really care about liberty then why would we define them by a word which has it's word-root: liberty? Intuitively, it seems like nonsense to me, despite whatever philosophical categorization has been done in philosophy departments across the world.

Why are these people not anarcho-capitalists, propertarians, egotarians, or some other word that draws an intuitive distinction?

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2009-05-05 4:02:53 PM

It sure does, Terrence.

But I think it would be dishonest for me to read these people out of the libertarian tent.

Some libertarians care about natural rights, which they think is co-extensive with liberty. Some libertarians think that natural rights are constitutive of liberty. I think we can construct thought experiments where they come apart. But these people would remain libertarian, even if it turned out that, in some fancy-pants thought experiment, it turned out that we would have to sacrifice liberty for the sake of respecting natural rights.

The same is true, in my mind, of the propertarian-libertarian.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-05-05 4:03:29 PM

Robert Jago has a great post in response to your earlier post, Mike. Worth checking out.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-05-05 4:11:50 PM

Mike and Terrence:

This is why I insist on the use of "libertarian" as a label that answers to the question of institutional design, rather than a package deal of answers to ethical and attitudinal questions.

The libertarian is someone who endorses a government of such-and-such a size and such-and-such a scope.

The word "libertarian" does not tell us why the libertarian wants just those institutions, or what for.

This is how you can get utilitarian libertarians (where the maximand isn't "liberty" but, rather, "well-being," for example). And we'll agree that these kinds of utilitarians will not care about liberty, except incidentally as partially constitutive of "well-being" or purely instrumentally as a necessary condition for "well-being" on planet Earth as it is with human beings with a psychology as we have.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-05-05 4:18:38 PM


What kind of libertarian are you? :)

Posted by: Mike Brock | 2009-05-05 4:30:46 PM

Mike -- racism is a form of collectivist thinking. If people embrace it, endorse it, sanction it, promote it - they are not thinking about the world from a liberarian perspective -- or maybe I should qualify that...

They are not starting from a foundation of individualism which I would suggest is at the core of all non-left libertarian ideologies. Not if they are being consistent anyways.

Also -- people who deny that other people have individual rights and liberties - are engaged in a wilfull rejection of reality, and embracing a kind of "any way the wind blows" approach to morality.

If I, as a human being have rights - because of what I am, and my nature as a human being, I have to conclude (it's the only logical conclusion to make starting with that premise) that every OTHER human being (all things being equal) has the same individual rights and for the same reason. At the essence, human beings all have the same *nature* as entities.

By violating the rights of others, we essentially divorce ourselves from rationality and reason. It's as ridiculous as a three year old who believes that so long as he covers his eyes - nobody can see him. The child eventually comes to understand that his perception of the world does not actually change the world or how others see him and the world.

When we violate the individual rights of others we violate our own nature as human beings.

It can perhaps be done for some time without there being consequences for doing so -- but to do so is to live - not like a human being, possessed of conscioussness and rationality. It is to act beneath or opposed to one's own nature.

Man, being the only animal that has self-awarness and consciousness and possessing the ability to reason is the only animal that can even make that kind of choice. We have to chose to live at some point in our life. We have to be free to act upon that choice and all the subsequent choices we make to achieve our chosen values.

If we negate that in others, we are (like the three year old child playing peekaboo) pretending that the world is different than it actually is.

Such people are a menace to any human beings they encounter.

And THAT is why -- I don't believe in coddling racists -- and why I don't believe that there is any such thing as a racist libertarian.

Posted by: MW | 2009-05-05 4:31:20 PM

The kind that cares deeply about liberty.

But I also care very much for human well-being in general.

Autonomy and well-being are my foundational ethical commitments. In practice, that means endorsing a state so small that I can comfortably drown it in a bathtub.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2009-05-05 4:33:43 PM

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