Why Libertarianism is Different

Why Libertarianism is Different

By Duncan Whitmore

A recent article of mine concerning the libertarian approach towards rights over land was written in response to the raising of the topic on a discussion forum. A separate, recent thread on the same forum has brought up another interesting discussion concerning the nature of libertarianism itself. I will attempt to address this in full here.

The specific question posed by the original poster of the thread was whether libertarianism amounted to a “step towards collectivism” for the reason that, in a free society, everyone would have to adhere to a small, but nevertheless universal set of common rules (specifically to the non-aggression principle).

Framed in this manner, an affirmative answer to this question would be ridiculous. The fact that people may adhere to the same set of social rules has nothing to do with whether a given society might be described as “collectivist” on the one hand or as “individualistic” on the other. “No one should murder or rape another” is a norm which applies to every individual, but it is pretty obvious that I wouldn’t be goose-stepping towards authoritarianism by pointing it out.

Indeed, once we consider norms such as these, we realise that every social order requires adherence to at least some common rules. Thus, if one was to follow the view set out by the original poster, the only possible order which could not be described as even remotely collectivist is the complete, atomised existence of every individual – i.e. no social order at all. Such absence of any societal anchors would condemn a person either to the life of a hermit or, more likely, to the disintegration of society into the law of the jungle: an orgy of mass thievery in which each individual seeks to wrest whatever he can get from anyone else, with no attempt whatsoever at establishing any kind of long term relations.

Clearly, however, social order has always been the empirically relevant form of human interaction. As such, concepts utilised by social thinkers to categorise the different ways in which humans can relate to each other are likely to refer to distinctions within this overall arch of social relations. They are unlikely to pertain to the much more basic gulf between order and no-order.

This is precisely the case when it comes to the difference between “individualism” and “collectivism”. Properly understood, collectivism refers to a political system in which individuals are forced to adhere to certain, positive values, ostensibly for the benefit of “society” or “the public”, but in practice for the benefit of some individuals/groups at the expense of everyone else. While obedience of these rules may result in something resembling a peaceful order, such rules and values as the regime demands are a net burden to each individual – i.e., the sacrifice of having to adhere to them does not result in something more highly valued in return.

For example, the state may enact a law demanding that every citizen refrains from drinking alcohol on a Sunday. Such an edict may be justified by the need to improve the temperance and piety of “the nation” for the “common good”; but it is clear that the only demonstrated benefits accrue to those specific individuals eager to see a culture of reduced inebriation. If everyone else expected to benefit, they would have refrained from alcohol consumption voluntarily.

In a free (or “individualistic”) society, having to abide by common rules may be an irritation for the individual at a given, particular instance. But in contrast to the stipulations of a collectivist regime, such rules are a net benefit to each individual, because here, the initial cost of having to abide by a rule is very much rewarded. The prosperity of our individual lives from our own perspective is utterly dependent upon social co-operation under the division of labour. However, social co-operation is unable to flourish without our adherence to at least some generally accepted rules, morals and values; if a given set of mores is successful in facilitating this co-operation, then they are, too, a benefit to each of us in turn.

For example, it is a benefit to me as an individual that no one, including myself, should be allowed to steal; for if this norm was disregarded, then social co-operation, the division of labour and capital accumulation would be far less advanced than they presently are. If that was the case, then I, and everyone else, would suffer from a drastically reduced standard of living. But norms that are not legally enforceable are just as important. If I want people to form mutually beneficial relationships with me, and to help me accomplish my goals, it is to my personal benefit that I make outward displays of politeness and kindness, adhering to a basic code of manners. Who, for instance, is going to offer me a job if I am persistently rude and obnoxious?

The only people to whom any such societal rules will prove to be a net burden are criminals and sociopaths. However, even these people – unless they are truly irrational, insane or otherwise blinded by some anti-human “vision” – are likely to exempt only themselves from societal mores. A thief may well want to steal a car, for instance, but the car itself cannot be produced without an extensive division of labour. Such division of labour, in turn, is reliant upon the willingness of the majority of people to conform to social rules. If everyone was thieving, looting and plundering, the entire apparatus of economic production would break down: nobody would have any cars, television sets, or smart phones – there would be nothing much worth stealing at all. Thus, even thieves hoping to profit from others are unlikely to support the blanket, or uniform abolition of rules that facilitate social co-operation.

In any case, however, as I explained recently, it is a mistake to assume that the main benefit of private property rights in a free society is to deter people from committing criminal acts; in fact, those who are motivated in that regard are likely to be so few in number that they will amount to little more than a minor irritation in the social order as a whole. Rather, the real benefit of adhering to such rights is the avoidance and resolution of conflicts between people who want to co-operate (or otherwise maintain peaceful relations) with each other. After all, we cannot engage in any kind of trade or exchange unless we are first agreed on what is yours and what is mine.

In short, simply because everyone has to adhere to the same rules does not mean that the collective is taking primacy over the individual.

That aside, this discussion does raise a wider, interesting point: are we libertarians as guilty as any other set of political philosophers in wanting the whole of humanity to adhere to the same set of common rules? Are we “enforcing” some kind of “vision” or “world-view” which we think is important onto everyone else? Why should people value liberty at all? Freedom has certainly flourished in the West on the basis of Christian ethics and Enlightenment thinking, but can we be so sure that it is suitable for other cultures and traditions?

As we shall see, however, to think in this way is to completely misunderstand how libertarianism differs from other political theories, especially those that argue in favour of a strong state.

Visions and Social Programmes

For one thing, libertarianism is not a comprehensive “vision” or “worldview”, nor is it a rigidly defined “system”.[1] In contrast to statists, libertarians have no concrete plans as to what any particular industry will look like, how much of any one product will be produced, where roads should be built and towns sited, or – more generally – which positive morals and values everyone should be made to follow. In fact, because people can and do differ enormously on these questions, it is somewhat inaccurate to talk about the battle for freedom as consisting of liberty pitted against one, single guise of arch-tyranny. Rather, it is a struggle between freedom on the one hand and hundreds of different comprehensive plans for state rule on the other. As Ludwig von Mises explains:

In advocating dictatorship […] people always advocate the dictatorship of their own clique. In asking for planning, what they have in mind is always their own plan, not that of others. They will never admit that a socialist or communist regime is true and genuine socialism or communism, if it does not assign to themselves the most eminent position and the highest income. For them the essential feature of true and genuine communism is that all affairs are precisely conducted according to their own will, and that all those who disagree are beaten into submission.

It is a fact that the majority of our contemporaries are imbued with socialist and communist ideas. However, this does not mean that they are unanimous in their proposals for socialization of the means of production and public control of production and distribution. On the contrary. Each socialist coterie is fanatically opposed to the plans of all other socialist groups. The various socialist sects fight one another most bitterly.[2]

Throughout history, threats to freedom have come from many different thinkers, in many different countries, and have carried many different party banners. To look at the political parties in the UK alone, we have, in addition to the two main parties, the “Liberal Democrats”, the “Social Democratic and Labour Party”, the “Green Party”, “People Before Profit”, the “Communist Party of Great Britain”, two parties each claiming to be the “Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist)”, “Left Unity”, “Socialist Party of Great Britain”, “Socialist Workers Party”, the “Workers Party of Great Britain”, etc. All of these stand on their own, independent manifestos, with very different ideas as to how they want to govern your life. Indeed, in principle, it is possible for there to be seven billion of these political parties across the world – one for every living individual who each makes his own, unique plan to rule everyone else.[3][4]

True enough, those committed to liberty form their own divisions and sects, largely because of a) doctrinal differences concerning what is required for liberty to be fulfilled, and b) strategic differences on how best to achieve it. Basically, however, liberty itself can mean only one thing: freedom of the individual to make his own plans instead of being forced to serve the plans of others.

Granted, we often talk about a “free world” as meaning one in which the state, and every last morsel of it, has been vanquished forever. Approached from this angle, libertarianism can, indeed, appear as if it is prescribing a defined kind of social order – especially when people make the mistake of assuming that a highly rationalised adherence to property rights and market transaction are the only features of a free society which glue that social order together. Moreover, it is tempting to assess the viability of libertarianism according to a very strict criterion: whether the total absence of any institution resembling the state is likely to be sustainable.

However, any kind of stateless nirvana is the ultimate product of libertarianism rather than libertarianism itself; fundamentally, libertarianism is not directly concerned with the specific kinds of social order that may or may not be built upon it. Rather, libertarianism is a behavioural ethic that condemns the use of force (violence) against the person and property of others. In the succinct words of Walter Block:

Libertarianism is the philosophy that maintains it is illicit to threaten or initiate violence against a person or his legitimately owned property. Defensive force may be used to ward off an attacker, but invasions of person or property are strictly prohibited by the non aggression axiom.[5]

In contrast to a fixed, or comprehensive vision, an ethic is not invalidated by the possibility that people can (or are even likely) to violate it. In fact, the very reason we have a science of ethics in the first place is because people have the ability to choose different paths; absent the element of volition, the path ahead would be determined wholly by the regularity of cause and effect, and so there would be no purpose in debating different options. Accordingly, any ethical proposition claiming to have hit upon the good (or right) path must presuppose that a moral agent possesses the ability to choose the bad (or wrong) one. Thus, to dismiss any such proposition as “utopian” or “unrealistic” solely on the grounds that people could choose not to follow it is to beg the question.[6] In fact, the absurdity of such thinking is laid bare by examining obviously unethical behaviour. If, for instance, everyone was choosing to rape and murder en masse with no prospect of them choosing otherwise in the near future, such a circumstance would not invalidate the notion that raping and murdering are unambiguously evil acts.

Given the fact that, for as long as humans walk the earth, the use of force will always be an attractive option to at least some people, it is likely that the libertarian ethic, just as any other, will be followed in greater or lesser degrees at different points in time (and in different ways).

The upshot of this is that the relevance of libertarianism to political thought is not dependent upon whether a perfectly stateless world is achievable in full; nor, similarly, is the judgment of our success a binary assessment between whether we have accomplished that perfect world on the one hand or whether we have failed to do so on the other. Again, to take the examples of murder and rape, it is unlikely that we will ever be able to reduce the incidence of these crimes to precisely zero; but that would hardly suffice as a reason for us to stop working towards that objective as much as possible, with a very significant reduction counting as a positive achievement in and of itself.

If we approach the libertarian ethic with this kind of thinking, then it fixes our attention on the fact that our core objective is less to do with “smashing the state” once and for all, and more to do with motivating people away from the choice of violence (and from supporting violent social structures) so as to achieve a reduction of affronts against person and property as much as we possibly can. To echo Jeff Deist, “better, not perfect” should be the aim. Indeed, states and state-like entities have never taken shape as institutions of uniform nature and effect across all times and places. The Soviet Union, for instance, is clearly very different from the Swiss Canton in terms of the impact it has upon its citizens lives, and upon world peace as a whole. Many libertarians would probably be content for us to reach the point at which all of the world’s states – or even just the imperialistic, warmongering version of the United States with which we are presently saddled – have been reduced to the relatively innocuous level of the Swiss Canton, even though we would still, technically, be living in a world of states.

Values and Choices

However, there is an even more fundamental way in which libertarianism – and the libertarian ethic in particular – differs from that of other political philosophies. This is that liberty – i.e. the freedom of each individual – is not a “value” in the same way that a tradition, a culture, or a religion (and any of the positive principles they may each espouse) may be considered values. Rather, liberty is the prerequisite or the presupposition to deciding what is and what is not valuable.

To illustrate what we mean by this, let’s take something simple like a set of recipes. “Lancashire Hotpot”, “Shepherd’s Pie”, “Spaghetti Bolognese” and “Chicken Tikka Masala” are all distinguishable dishes. People may have different preferences for each and how often they wish to cook and consume them. I might think that “Spaghetti Bolognese” is generally preferably to “Shepherd’s Pie”, whereas another person would say the opposite. Further, we can debate the precise details of each recipe, and which ingredients or cooking methods work better. For instance, should a dash of red wine be added to “Spaghetti Bolognese”, or more or less chilli be added to “Chicken Tikka Masala”? All of these are positive discussions concerning our culinary constructions.

However, the terms with which these discussions are undertaken are not themselves positive options or choices. Out of the various array of combinations, the meanings of the ingredients used and the cooking methods to be deployed are presupposed. We may for instance, debate whether “Spaghetti Bolognese” is better with more or less salt, but we don’t argue about what “salt” actually is. We may disagree over whether a given dish is produced better if it is baked as opposed to if it is fried, but we have already assumed the nature of the acts to which “baking” and “frying” refer. Similarly, we can argue over whether five ounces of flour is better for a cake recipe than six ounces; but this agreement wouldn’t extend to the question of what “flour” is or to how much an “ounce” actually weighs.

This does not mean to say that we cannot debate the precise definition of these things; hypothetically, we could, for instance, argue about whether “beef” refers to the meat from a cow or to the meat from a pig. But this is clearly a very different, and more basic discussion, from whether “Lancashire Hot Pot” is a tastier recipe than “Shepherd’s Pie”. And, clearly, we cannot proceed to answer wider questions about the composition of recipes until we have settled those more basic issues. It would, for instance, be hopeless for us to debate whether “beef mince” is tastier than “lamb mince” in a cottage/shepherd’s pie if one of us thinks that “beef” is meat from a cow whereas the other thinks it is meat from a pig. As such, settling questions regarding the definitions of ingredients, the units of weight and measurement, and the methods of cooking, is the prerequisite to writing any kind of recipe; it is not, in and of itself, part of that writing.

To take another example, a mathematical theorem needs to use a set of numbers together with certain operations, functions etc. in order to be constructed. These same features may be used to construct a wide variety of different, positive theories, each of which reaches a different conclusion from the others. However, the definition of the numbers themselves, and that of the functions used, is not, itself, part of the theory. Rather, their meaning and use is presupposed. Again, this does not mean to say that such meaning can be debated. But to the extent that those questions are settled, these things are prerequisites to constructing a mathematical theory, not a theory in and of themselves.

Even more generally, the very language we use contains words with presupposed meanings. In reading this essay, you may either agree or disagree with the ideas that I am communicating, but we each assume that, in order to communicate those ideas, we have a shared understanding of each word that I use. Such words are the building blocks of the ideas rather than ideas themselves.

How does this concern liberty and its relationship with other values? Quite simply, that the rights to self-ownership and to private property must be considered the presupposition to the expression of values rather than values themselves.

The reason for this is that values can be realised only through action. Values concern how we should behave – how we should act to produce particular ends that are either good, just, noble or simply better than an alternative. In fact, one might say that valuation is an action; the process of valuation is the diversion of a given piece of property from fulfilling a lesser preferred end to fulfilling an end that is more highly preferred. For instance, if I believe that it is right and proper for me to give some of my money to charity then I will do so. If, on the other hand, I believe that it is bad for me to fritter money away on a horse race, then I will refrain from doing so.[7] Further, if these were the prevailing attitudes in a given society – i.e., with most people giving to charity while shunning the horse races – it would make sense for us to say that giving to charity and avoiding the races are societal values.

However, the question of liberty is not about what is the right (or most valuable) thing to do with a given piece of property; rather it is who gets to decide – who has the right to choose which is the most valuable end to which a given piece of property should be diverted. If a person does not have that right, then he cannot realise any values at all over that given piece of property.

As such, people whose person and property are subjected to physical force aren’t expressing any values – rather they are simply being forced to value what someone else thinks is important. If, for instance, people were being forced to give some of their money to charity, or forcibly kept away from the racetrack, then there is no way in which we could say that these people are making any valuation at all vis-à-vis charity and betting. They are simply being made to do these acts regardless of their preferences.

It is for this reason that it would be nonsensical to suggest that liberty is more valuable to some people than it is for others. If people are stripped of the ability to act and to express values with their own person or property, then we cannot say what they value at all. So if the state displaces people’s liberty in order to force adherence to positive values that have been decreed from on high, the element of force alone gives us no indication that these people value what the state is enforcing. Rather, the most we can say is that such values are important only to the state’s leaders and decision makers. Indeed, to echo our discussion above, this is why the state’s claim to enforce the “public interest”, “common good” and to benefit society “as a whole” is stepping over the very critical question: is there a genuine benefit to each individual, or are there benefits only to some people at the expense of others?[8][9]

Equally, it is nonsensical for us to say that liberty “isn’t for everyone”. To deny a person their liberty is essentially to deny that they are human; the essence of being human is thinking, choosing and acting – activities which are possible only through the freedom to do them. Deprived of these abilities, humans are reduced to the status of mere tools in the execution of someone else’s values. Thus, any society that is deprived of liberty is not a human society. Rather, it is more akin to an army of robots under the direction of a controller.

Liberty, therefore, is not a value as such. Rather, it is the prerequisite to the realisation of values. Liberty is not something that can be either chosen or discarded in competition with “other” values, as if it just one choice out of many. Rather, the very act of choosing presupposes one’s right to choose in the first place – a right which entails individual liberty.[10]

Incidentally, this explains also why the “universal” nature of libertarianism differs from positive moral theories that attempt to force their values upon everyone. Libertarianism speaks only to a very basic, common feature of every single human being: the ability to think, to choose and to act. It is universal only in the sense that it recognises that all human beings operate on the same basic, playing field. Unlike other theories, it makes no extensive demands as to precisely which game is played.

Concluding Remarks

It’s interesting to note that the “universal” nature of libertarianism can be attacked from different, seemingly contradictory angles. On the one hand – as in the Reddit thread which prompted this article – by a Stirnirite, anarcho-egoist as a “step towards collectivism”; and on the other, by both conservatives and the left for our supposed advocacy for atomised, abstract individualism. In facing these assaults from each flank, one is reminded somewhat of Joseph Schumpeter’s remark concerning the struggle of pro-capitalist intellectuals: their successful defence against one charge serves only to change the indictment.[11]

I have written much on the fallacies of individualistic/abstract view of libertarianism before (see here for instance), but for the sake of completion, we might as well say a few words about this too.

The question that libertarian theory addresses is who should have the ultimate, legal power of disposal over a person’s body and over any given piece of tangible property. Our answer to that question is that each individual has such a right over his own body, and over any tangible property which he either a) homesteads from virgin resources, or b) receives through voluntary exchange.

From a purely legal perspective, yes, you can technically do whatever you want with your own person and property, subject to the rights of others. You can legally choose to be as rude, boorish, obnoxious, filthy, depraved and unpleasant as you like within the boundaries of your own property rights. Neither the police, nor anyone else, should have the right to break down your door in response.

However, it does not follow from this that any positive choice is morally meritorious or otherwise a good thing to do – either in its own right or from the point of view of sustaining a free society. With regards to the latter, it will always be the case that certain socially (rather than legally) enforced behaviours, values, morals, duties, customs, cultures and traditions will have to be embraced while others must be roundly condemned and discarded. There are two reasons for this.

First, such behaviours are important for motivating people towards respecting your freedom in the first place. As such, freedom in the real world cannot sit apart from these motivating factors.

As a matter of theory and understanding, it is right and proper for us to segregate the question of people’s legal rights from the question of their positive moral choices. Indeed, such a method is not dissimilar from how, in a controlled experiment, we isolate a single variable acting upon a phenomenon from any other in order to better understand the impact of that variable. However, outside of the laboratory we cannot achieve a similar level of isolation; instead, we have to consider the effects of multiple variables operating simultaneously if we are to interact with the world as it is.[12]

So too, in social thought, can we isolate certain strands of reality in our minds in order to achieve a degree of clarity in our understanding. But in the world as it is, it is not necessarily possible for different elements to remain separate when considering how the social order holds together. So while we can understand in our minds questions of legality separately from questions of positive morality, preserving the sociological co-existence of these two realms in the real world is a holistic exercise. As one commentator puts it:

Moral errors are unlikely to remain neatly compartmentalized.

[…]

Justice that consists of not aggressing against others needs the support of the justice that consists of judging people as they deserve. And both require the support of the virtues of honesty, kindness, and generosity – indeed arguably, of all the virtues.

In short, respect for people’s rights cannot be isolated from the rest of our moral psychology.

In other words, if people are generally unpleasant, obnoxious, spiteful and bigoted towards each other – or otherwise engage in behaviour which others find outrageous, immoral, disgusting or depraved – they are equally likely to cross over into aggressing each other as well. Thus, while the non-aggression principle must always remain as the core of the libertarian ethic, repeating it until the cows come home is unlikely to make much of a difference unless we also address these other attitudes – at least, that is, if people are to co-exist in close proximity.

Second, common observance of certain, positive behaviours act as cohering and co-ordinating factors that grease the wheels of social co-operation. Some of these factors may be universal, others may be more specific to time and place. For an instance of the latter, co-operation within any one community requires its members to speak at least one, common language. However, that language could be English, Welsh, French or German. We could go into further detail, but suffice it to say that common gestures, customs, traditions and rituals all serve a purpose in fostering community cohesion.

In sum, the simple fact that a person should be legally free does not mean he is exempt from having to conform to any social boundaries to his behaviour – at least, that is, if he wants to benefit from social co-operation with others.[13]

Liberty means being able to live your life devoid of other people subjecting your person and property to the imposition of force. It doesn’t mean literal absolution from any remaining earthly constraints that are necessary to both sustain a free order on the one hand, and, on the other, to enable the social co-operation on which the flourishing of your life depends. Nor, in a wider sense, does it entail libertinism or some kind of gnostic liberation from the boundaries imposed upon us by material reality.

Knowing all of this, it is imperative that libertarians – in their role as political activists rather than mere theorists – endeavour to discover those positive behaviours and values that are likely to maximise people’s willingness to a) observe each other’s freedom, and b) engage in peaceful, social co-operation. Some of these behaviours will be universal, others may be more specific to a particular people or culture – hence the need for liberating movements to be tailored to their precise audience rather than spouting an unrefined, uniform message.

However – and to circle back to what we been saying in the bulk of this article – it isn’t possible for one to leap ahead into exploring the sociological requirements of sustaining a social order without first having addressed the question of individual rights as a prerequisite. Unless you settle this matter first, you will overlook the question of who society is actually for. Devoid of the rights to self-ownership and private property, then the function of a social order – regardless of whatever values and morals it supposedly upholds – will never be to improve the lives of those individuals as viewed by them. Rather, it will be to improve the lives of some people at the expense of others.

Those conservatives, free marketers and any others who are sympathetic to the cause of freedom, but who otherwise condemn libertarians for their “abstract” focus on the question of rights, may wish to bear this in mind.

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Notes

[1] This is in spite of the fact that libertarians (including myself, on occasion) may have described it as such.

[2] Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, Yale University Press (1962), 566. He reiterates the same point in Idem, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War, Liberty Fund/Ludwig von Mises Institute (2010), 242-3.

[3] Given this fact, a very simple argument against engorging the power of the state is that no one can ever guarantee that the boot will be on his foot rather than on someone else’s.

[4] This observation demonstrates why the enemies of freedom do not, and never will, organise themselves into a monolithic, global conspiracy to enslave us all. Power is a zero-sum game; the more detailed the question of its exercise, the more that it becomes subject to competing priorities and interests amongst those who seek it. For more detailed explanations of this, see here and here.

[5] Walter Block, Toward a Libertarian Theory of Guilt and Punishment for the Crime of Statism, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Volume 22 (2011), 665-75 at 666-7 [emphasis added]. The continued focus of libertarians upon the state results from the fact that a) the state’s breach of the libertarian ethic is an integral part of its definition as an institution, and b) it is, by far, the biggest violator of this ethic. But the ethic itself applies to the actions of every individual – libertarians are just as critical of private citizens and entities who behave aggressively as much as we are of the state.

[6] This doesn’t mean, however, that an ethic couldn’t be described as “utopian” for other reasons.

[7] A professed commitment to a value with minimal corresponding action is the essence of what has become known as “virtue signalling”.

[8] In fact, one might say that statism destroys people’s values rather than allows them to flourish. Without the liberty to act, a heretical value is literally unrealisable.

[9] It’s true, of course, that people can and do vary in their acquiescence to the suppression of their freedom. In other words, some people can be more passive and compliant, whereas others may be more rebellious and difficult to control. In this sense we could say that some people “value” their liberty more highly than others. However, this is a complex issue that relies upon a number of different variables. For one thing, non-compliance will be more likely if people believe that they have a chance of facing few repercussions – in other words, the de facto suppression of their liberty isn’t all that effective.

If, however, we assume that the imposition of force will, indeed, be effective, then a person’s liberty is already gone from that moment, and can form no part of any exchange. From then on, the only concern a person has is with how to minimise his losses. For instance, if a thief holds a gun to my head before demanding that I hand over my wallet, I know that the thief is going to get that wallet regardless of what I do. Any real choice I can exercise over that wallet has been utterly repudiated. Thus, the only options before me are a) complying and losing the wallet, and b) refusing to comply so as to lose my life and my wallet. If, as can be expected, I choose a), it’s clearly absurd to say that I “valued” the thief taking my wallet more than I did my freedom.

[10] To put this is a more economic context, free markets are the method of determining what people value. To assess the market from the point of view of a yardstick selected by the observer – i.e. it’s “unfair”, or “unequal” – is to substitute the observer’s values for those of everyone else.

[11] Quoted in Murray N Rothbard, The Fallacy of the Public Sector, in Idem, Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays, Second Edition, Ludwig von Mises Institute (2000), 133-144 at 138-9.

[12] The fact that theory is often concerned with isolating certain strands of reality in order to make better sense of each of them can easily lead to a misunderstanding as to what makes a theory valid. Such a misunderstanding is usually betrayed by the remark that a given proposition is “good in theory, but bad in practice”.

Such an observation, however, is nonsensical. A theory that has no application in practice whatsoever is good neither in theory nor in practice – it is simply a bad theory. But a theory that provides only a limited, but nevertheless true, snapshot of a particular area of reality isn’t necessarily “bad in practice”. It may simply mean that multiple other factors are operative in the real world which must too be understood if one is to interact with reality “in practice”.

[13] If he doesn’t, and if all social mores are an offence to him, then he can go and live as a hermit, foraging for all of his needs in total isolation.

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