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June 15, 2005

So You Want to Live in a Free Society (3): The fundamental freedom-based argument for private property

Anderson on Political Economy, Elizabeth Anderson: June 15, 2005

In this series of posts, I've been developing a view about the rules we should institute if we want to live in a free society.  On the view being constructed, we take freedom as our foundational value, in terms of which institutions, including property rights, are justified.  In taking freedom as our starting point, we treat property rights as instrumentally valuable for promoting freedom.  Particular property rules are to be justified according to how well they promote freedom.  This approach is distinct from one that starts with certain assumptions about what we own, as natural rights theories do, or that assumes that we are entitled to certain property rights in virtue of moral desert or productive contributions.  I've already argued that such approaches are incompatible with capitalism.  Arguments for private property rights based on freedom, however, are compatible with capitalism.

Of course, it matters how freedom is defined.  In my last post, I explained two conceptions of freedom:  as one's opportunity set, and as personal independence (non-domination).  In this post I'll just be looking at the notion of freedom as opportunity sets, and see where it takes us.  I'll be arguing that this notion of freedom delivers, fairly straightforwardly, a strong case in favor of institutions of private property, in a way that narrower notions of freedom as bare non-interference cannot do.

Some commentators to my last post suspect that I've stacked the deck already with this notion of freedom as opportunity sets.  Rob Perelli-Minetti claims, for instance, that "I don't think most economists who are neither socialists nor some sort of Marxist would find the notion of liberty as opportunity set either helpful or meaningful."  To the contrary, it's a conventional way of  representing freedom among  non-Marxist, non-socialist economists.  Amartya Sen has done the best work formalizing this notion of freedom in the mathematical language of economics. He shows how it yields a neat freedom-based argument for free markets.  (See Sen's extensive discussions of representations of freedom in terms of opportunity sets in his Rationality and Freedom.  Note especially ch. 17, where he presents a nice proof of certain freedom-optimizing properties of competitive market equilibria.  His proof moves neoclassical analysis from its traditional focus on welfare to a focus on freedom--something any libertarian should welcome.)

Arbitrary Aarvark worries that I've strayed too far from Hayek with my account of freedom as opportunity sets.  But Hayek clearly stated that the fundamental justification for private property rights and free markets lies with the expansion of freedoms, understood as opportunities, that it provides.  The proper aim of legislators in passing laws, he says, is "increasing the chances for all . . . in the sense . . . [of] increasing the opportunties that will become available to some unkown persons." (Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol. 2, p. 126).  It's worth quoting him at length:

Since rules of just conduct can affect only the chances of success of the efforts of men, the aim in altering or developing them should be to improve as much as possible the chances of anyone selected at random. . . . All the law can do is to add to the number of favorable possibilities likely to arise for some unknown person and thus to build up an increasing likelihood that favorable opportunities will come anyone's way. (L,L,L, 129-130).

For Hayek, the fundamental justification of property rights and rules of free exchange is to expand the "range of [favorable] opportunities" (p. 130)--that is, freedoms--that people have.  I heartily agree.

Still, suspicion lurks of a stacked deck, and appeals to Hayekian authority may not be enough to allay them.  Some people think that the freedom that matters is a formal notion of freedom as non-interference with whatever opportunities one has, however few and undesirable those opportunities may be.  They suspect that if we go beyond this notion of freedom as non-interference, toward the alarmingly "positive" notion of freedom as actual opportunities to which people have effective access, we'll move inexorably toward some awful "redistributive" policies that libertarians hate.

The latter suspicion, that notions of opportunity freedom lead us toward "redistributive" policies, is correct, as I'll be arguing in later posts.  But the former suspicion, that I have stacked the deck by selecting a conception of freedom tailored in advance to lead to that conclusion, is mistaken.  You can't head these developments off at the pass by insisting on evaluating institutions strictly by the formal notion of freedom as non-interference.  For that path leaves one unable to defend capitalist private property, too.

Fellow-blogger Don Herzog alluded to the reason why freedom-as-non-interference is an inadequate conception of freedom in a recent post.  If the only kind of freedom that matters is that no one intentionally interfere with one's formal freedom of action, and not that one's opportunity set be large and full of worthwhile options, then freedom-lovers would have to oppose traffic laws, stop lights, and so forth, for interfering with freedom of movement.  The result of a lack of such laws, however, is not actual freedom of movement, but, in areas of high traffic density, gridlock. (And, in areas of high traffic flow, grave danger.)  To be sure, in a state of gridlock, one has the formal freedom to choose any movement in one's opportunity set--which amounts to being able to rock forward and back a couple of inches from bumper to bumper, getting nowhere.  Some freedom!  By contrast, if we give up certain formal freedoms--to run red lights and stop signs, to drive indiscriminately across lanes--we get in return a vastly expanded opportunity set, including the ability to actually get to places one wants to go, more safely and quickly than if we hadn't given up those freedoms.  The point of formal freedom of movement--the right to move around, without coercive inteference by the state or other people--is that it is instrumental to expanding actual opportunities to move around where one wants to go.  Merely formal freedom of movement, with nowhere to move to, or nowhere worth moving to, is not an end in itself.  Different configurations of formal freedom of movement--different traffic laws--are justified by the extent of the opportunities for safe freedom of movement they enable.  Give up a little freedom-as-non-interference, get a big bundle of freedom as real opportunities to move around to worthwhile places in return.  A pretty spectacular bargain in terms of freedom, if you ask me.

Now here's the rub:  the fundamental freedom-based justification for private property has exactly the same form as tbe freedom-based justification for traffic laws.  So it depends on accepting a conception of freedom as opportunity, rather than freedom in the formal sense of non-interference.  For suppose our conception of freedom were simply that of non-interference.  Then the state of perfect freedom would be the earliest stage of Locke's state of nature, in which all the earth is held in common and everyone has a right to take whatever they want from it.  No one would have the right to coercively exclude anyone else from the use of any part of it, since that would involve interference with their freedom of action.  This entails that in the state of perfect freedom-as-non-interference, no one would be entitled to private property.

(Remember, if freedom is to be  our foundational value, then private property has to be justified in terms of freedom, and we can't help ourselves to any prior notion of natural rights to property, against which we define a moralized notion of non-interference with antecedently given rights.  That would be begging the question.  Granted, in the perfect state of freedom-as-non-interference, people couldn't seize your body, or take what you are physically holding or wearing, without coercively interfering with your freedom of action.  But if they just seized those acorns you had gathered and left on the ground for a moment, they would not be interfering with you.  No coercion would have taken place, since they would not have achieved their aims by bending your will to their desires.  Locke didn't start with any antecedently given conception of natural rights to property, either.  Rather, he justified natural rights to property in terms of their instrumental value in enabling people to advance their moral duties under the fundamental moral law--to protect, preserve, and promote human life.)

The trouble with trying to justfy private property in terms of freedom-as-non-interference is that private property essentially involves securing the owner's opportunity freedom at the expense of everyone else's freedom-as-non-interference.  This has to be a losing argument, if freedom-as-non-interference is the freedom that matters.  For private property essentially involves the use of coercive power to exclude others from using it.  It essentially involves coercive interference, or the threat of interference, with everyone else.  Common property in the earth and in things does not have this feature.  Viewed from the static point of view of freedom-as-non-interference, the institution of private property involves a net loss of freedom.

This is a reductio of the conception of freedom as non-interference as the fundamental measure of freedom, not an attack on private property.  (As I've mentioned several times before, I'm an enthusiast for private property!  I want everyone to have effective access to it!)  What matters more fundamentally than freedom-as-non-interference is opportunity freedom.  Once we shift to a conception of freedom as opportunities, the case for private property is evident.  A society containing nothing but common property would be utterly impoverished and insecure.  People wouldn't make productive investments, for fear that others would just seize the results, leaving them poorer than before.  Others would find it easier to simply take things, rather than to try to get access to valued items by being of service to others.  Properly designed private property regimes massively expand everyone's opportunity freedom by reversing these perverse incentives.  They establish entitlements that dramatically increase the probability that individuals will gain from making productive investments.  They structure incentives so that people do better by being of service to others--thereby expanding others' opportunity freedom--than by taking what others have made, and thereby reducing their opportunity freedom in some zero-sum (or even negative-sum) game.

The fundamental freedom-based argument for private property is dynamic and opportunity-based, not static and formal.  From a static point of view, private property entails a net loss of formal freedom of action, just as traffic laws do.  From a dynamic, opportunity-based point of view--one that considers the consequences for future freedoms of these sacrifices of formal freedom--properly designed private property regimes dramatically expand people's real freedoms (opportunities).  Give up a little formal freedom-as-non-interference, and get a big and growing bundle of opportunity freedoms in return.  Hayek was right: this is a spectacular bargain.  But to grasp it as a bargain from the point of view of freedom, you must embrace a conception of freedom as opportunities, not merely as non-interference.

To sum up, I've argued in this post that:

1. Opportunity freedom is a more fundamental and important type of freedom then freedom-as-non-interference.

2. Private property in things can be justified in terms of opportunity freedoms, but not in terms of pure freedom-as-non-interference.

3. The fundamental form of a freedom-based justification for a coercive law is:  if you give up this freedom, you'll get a much more valuable set of freedoms in return.

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Comments

Posted by: Mark Olson

Having just for the first time, visited one of the "teeming southeast asian cities" and witnessed what "driving in the absence of traffic" laws looks like ... well that sort of anarchy gets along a lot better than you'd expect. A sort of fluid merging of a managerie of vehicles. So inamuch as your argument depends on the analogy of a loss of freedom of movement in the absence of traffic laws leads to an equivalent loss of freedom in the absence of property laws you might consider the half of the world that doesn't use them. One also notes that in this part of the world one of the professions with surprisingly high employment rate is security guard.

Posted by: Mark Olson | Jun 15, 2005 9:00:22 AM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Traffic laws are a particularly inappropriate example of why maximizing freedom as noninterference is an inadequate basis for ordering society. First, the roads are public. Libertarians would have no problem in principle with private roads on which no traffic rules existed and all drivers assumed all risk for their behavior. Libertarians would also not be surprised in the slightest that such a commercial venture would fail because the overwhelming majority of people would rationally conclude that the benefit was not worth the bargain. Ignoring the anarcho-capitialists, our fringe’s fringe, I know of no libertarians who do not support procedural rules for commerce and public conduct, and traffic regulations are largely just procedural rules. Insofar as they are not procedural, they are protective of persons and property and I know of no libertarians who oppose laws protecting persons and property against assault, battery, vandalism of private property, etc. Driving one’s car into someone else’s is thus no different than driving one’s fist into someone else’s nose.

It is true that the very institutions of private property (what the heck is “capitalist private property” Ms Anderson?) and laws protecting persons and property impose a certain trade-off of one opportunity set for another. I have argued previously, albeit briefly, that the notion of property outside the context of a legal system in at least a minimalist government is an inchoate concept no better than a theorist’s whimsy. For that matter, I have little regard for social contract theories insofar as they purport to being sufficient moral justifications for the imposition of state power. As the analytic skeletons of a likely historical account of the rise of society and its subsequent invention of the state, however, they make some sense. I have also argued (again briefly – hey, this ain’t my blog, nor am I using this forum as a sounding board for a forthcoming journal article or book!) that no rational person would refuse to opt for the greatly expanded opportunity set that arises from the minimalist government that is a necessary condition of anything worth being called civil society. But that trade-off doesn’t get us much farther than my trading off my right to punch you in the nose in return for your right to get together with your friends and beat the crap out of me later, my right to swipe your acorns in return for your right to set fire to my hut, etc.

Although Ms Anderson has not yet fleshed out the details of her attempt to justify “some awful ‘redistributive’ policies [I’m going to] hate,” I might preemptively note at least one possible areas of disagreement. It is one thing to accept an initial trade-off of opportunity sets because of the tremendous potential benefit of the bargain to each person (and thus to all), quite another to accept a continuing ‘re-negotiation’ of the results of those opportunity sets when it turns out that some opportunities turned out better than others. Life is not like the NFL, where salary caps and league revenue sharing in quest of team ‘parity’ is at least arguably both necessary and efficient and where the principles of fairness play out quite differently than in society at large. Still, I wait to hear how Ms Anderson both understands and attempts to finesse the differences.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jun 15, 2005 9:44:54 AM


Posted by: Terrier

I hear freedom is on the march in Baghdad and there is a surprisingly high employment rate for security guards. This must be of course because there is a lax enforcement of traffic laws.

Posted by: Terrier | Jun 15, 2005 9:45:52 AM


Posted by: Detached Observer

To all the traffic nitpickers,

Having just for the first time, visited one of the "teeming southeast asian cities" and witnessed what "driving in the absence of traffic" laws looks like...

Southeast asia does not have an absence of traffic laws, merely looser laws compared to the US. All the cars going in the same direction still drive on the same side of the road.

I'd be interested to see if you can produce a single place that manifests the total absence of traffic laws.

the roads are public

Irrelevant. Once the roads have been built (whatever your position was on building them in the first place), the libertarian discounting of freedom-as-noninterference compells you to argue against traffic laws.

Posted by: Detached Observer | Jun 15, 2005 10:06:36 AM


Posted by: Detached Observer

....that should be, "the libertarian discounting of freedom-as-opportunity"

Posted by: Detached Observer | Jun 15, 2005 10:08:24 AM


Posted by: mtnmarty

You deny biasing the theory towards redistribution, but you do admit to biasing it towards compatibility with captitalism.

Isn't there a major issue concerning the specification of "valuable" in more valuable set of freedoms? Doesn't the comparison of opportunity sets require an opportunity metric that is not specified in the theory?

For example, how does one value the opportunity set for power, status and domination under this theory? Does making freedom our foundational value assume that all actors perceive the market for domination the same way?


Posted by: mtnmarty | Jun 15, 2005 10:43:44 AM


Posted by: Kevin Carson

The main reason for maldistribution of property is that property rules are defined badly in the first place. Setting up the rules properly on natural rights grounds will also produce better results from your consequentialist point of view.

Even to a radical Lockean (like Murray Rothbard), the vast majority of existing real property titles are illegitimate, because they were not established by altering the land with human labor. According to Rothbard, the rightful owner of those lands is the first person to actually homestead them with his own labor, regardless of the nominal title-holder.

I'm not a Rothbardian. I prefer private property rules based on occupancy-and-use (Proudhon, Ingalls, Tucker). Without state enforcement of absentee title to land the "owner" isn't using himself, it would be impossible to amass big land holdings or collect landlord rent.

For that matter, the Georgist approach would also make it impossible to profit from absentee landlordism, or from holding large quantities of land out of use for speculative purposes.

Set up the rules right in the first place, on purely moral grounds, and the consequences will take care of themselves.

Posted by: Kevin Carson | Jun 15, 2005 11:59:46 AM


Posted by: johnt

Did anybody define opportunities in a redistributive state,did EA? "This conception that all should be allowed to try has been largely replaced by the altogether different conception that all must be assured an equal start and the same prospects. This means little less than that the government,instead of providing the same circumstances for all'should aim at controlling all conditions relevant to a particular individuals prospects and so adjust them to his capacities as to assure him of the same prospects as everybody else. Such deliberate adaptation of opportunities to individual aims and capacities would,of course,be the OPPOSITE OF FREEDOM. Nor could it be justified as a means of making the best use of all available knowledge except on the assumption that government knows best how individual capacities can be used". Hayek,The Constitution of Liberty,P92/93. I always thought that a reason for establishing gov't was to protect property,to prevent the neighbors,gangs of thugs,and proto-liberals,from helping themselves to the wives and property of others. I read EA and find out it's all about traffic lights,opportunity freedoms,and giving up rights for more valuable rights. Who,may I ask,gets to decide what is valuable,just how valuable it is,and what and how much you give up as part of this "trade"?

Posted by: johnt | Jun 15, 2005 1:46:00 PM


Posted by: Felix

For some excellent arguments, freedom-based and otherwise, for private property, see, for example:

Ludwig von Mises
http://www.mises.org/libprop.asp
http://www.mises.org/liberal/ch1sec6.asp
http://www.mises.org/liberal/ch2sec2.asp
http://www.mises.org/liberal/ch2sec3.asp
http://www.mises.org/humanaction/chap24sec4.asp

Murray Rothbard
http://www.mises.org/rothbard/newliberty2.asp

The Ethics and Economics of Private Property
http://www.mises.org/fullstory.aspx?Id=1646
(and a follow-up at http://www.mises.org/journals/qjae/pdf/qjae3_1_8.pdf)

Cyclopædia of Political Science: Property
http://www.econlib.org/library/YPDBooks/Lalor/llCy870.html

Property Rights
http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/PropertyRights.html

Property and its Enemies
http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2003/Jasayenemy0.html
http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2003/Jasaymyth.html
http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2003/Jasayfree.html

Posted by: Felix | Jun 15, 2005 2:45:18 PM


Posted by: AAF

D.A.R. writes: "Traffic laws are a particularly inappropriate example of why maximizing freedom as noninterference is an inadequate basis for ordering society."

-- and then goes on to demonstrate that traffic laws are in fact a very good example of why maximizing freedom as noninterference is an inadequate basis for ordering society. As D.A.R. points out, no rational person would choose to drive on a no-traffic-rule road; a rational person would instead choose to drive under a set of rules that interfere with his freedom to drive on the other side of the street, go when others stop, swerve suddenly, etc. Whether these rules are imposed and enforced by the "government" or by the "private owner" of the road (backed, of course, by the coercive power of government), or by social convention (backed by the coercive power of the disapproving glare and the angry mob), the rules (1) interfere with those freedoms and (2) are important to ordering this sphere of society.

Posted by: AAF | Jun 15, 2005 2:47:12 PM


Posted by: Mona

Once the roads have been built (whatever your position was on building them in the first place), the libertarian discounting of freedom-as-noninterference compells you to argue against traffic laws.

Not at all. Aside from the reasons Mr. Ridgely adduced for libertarian support of traffic laws, the state as service provider is entirely justified in establishing rules for use, especially for an inherently dangerous activity. And after all, one need not drive -- some people actually do not.

But the fact is, laws meant to protect persons and their property -- which most rules of the road are; a few ton of metal going at high speeds past each other are very risky to human life -- are entirely within the bounds of what most libertarians consider to be the proper domain of govt.

Posted by: Mona | Jun 15, 2005 4:11:15 PM


Posted by: AAF

Mona writes: "But the fact is, laws meant to protect persons and their property -- which most rules of the road are . . . -- are entirely within the bounds of what most libertarians consider to be the proper domain of govt."

Exactly. I think the point of EA's post is premised on the fact that most libertarians consider traffic rules a good thing. If libertarians were anti-traffic-rules, bringing up the example would be pointless. The question is *why* are they a good thing.

A purely non-interference view of freedom does not explain why traffic rules are a good thing. Instead, it would point toward elimination of traffic rules. Since libertarians are not in favor of eliminating traffic rules, they must not be driven solely by freedom in the non-interference sense -- there must be some other motivating factor. This far, I think EA is clearly right.

EA posits that this other factor -- though libertarians are loath to see this in themselves -- is an affinity for freedom-as-opportunities. (In this, I think she might be right, but I also think there could be other motivators -- namely, the view that lives are good and traffic rules save lives, so traffic rules are good. But would any self-respecting libertarian go in for that kind of naked consequentialism? (Maybe -- I could imagine a consequentialist-based libertarianism, but I don't think that's typical). You could also be pro-traffic-rules on aesthetic grounds, in appreciation of the beauty of parallel streams of opposing-direction headlights and the swirl of colors in a spaghetti junction.)

But if we're looking at freedom as the reason, a pure negative non-interference type of freedom fails to justify traffic rules. So give up claiming to believe solely in non-interference freedom, or give up support for traffic rules, but don't lay claim to both.

Posted by: AAF | Jun 15, 2005 5:07:04 PM


Posted by: Detached Observer

"But the fact is, laws meant to protect persons and their property -- which most rules of the road are; a few ton of metal going at high speeds past each other are very risky to human life -- are entirely within the bounds of what most libertarians consider to be the proper domain of govt."

Not true, at least not as stated here. Drugs are very risky to human life, yet most libertarians oppose laws banning their use. Choice is usually the key issue: just as most libertarians oppose drug laws that seek to protect people from themselves, they ought to apply the same logic and reject laws that prevent them from taking dangerous risks on the road.

the reasons Mr. Ridgely adduced for libertarian support of traffic laws

I find the talk on this thread, and others, of what "most libertarians" believe to be irrelevant. What's relevant is what logically follows out of the arguments most libertarians make, not whether most libertarians manage to make the inference. Rigdely's rejoinder that most libertarians like procedural laws for commerce is not a "reason"; EA's post implies that if libertarians were consistent in their evaluations of freedom-as-non-interference and freedom-as-opportunity they would not support those laws either.

the state as service provider is entirely justified in establishing rules for use

What service the state will provide is up for grabs. It could provide a service that favors freedom-as-opportunity or it could provide a service that favors freedom-as-non-interference. A libertarian who favors the latter freedom over the former must logically prefer services that favor freedom-as-non-interference and oppose the traffic laws.

Posted by: Detached Observer | Jun 15, 2005 5:32:52 PM


Posted by: AAF

Detached Observer writes (quoting Mona): "'But the fact is, laws meant to protect persons and their property . . .are entirely within the bounds of what most libertarians consider to be the proper domain of govt.' Not true, at least not as stated here. . . . just as most libertarians oppose drug laws that seek to protect people from themselves, they ought to apply the same logic and reject laws that prevent them from taking dangerous risks on the road."

I believe Mona would agree that what she meant (and the conventional libertarian view) is: "laws meant to protect persons and their property *from other persons* . . ."

In any case, to the extent traffic laws are designed to prevent people from taking dangerous risks to their own lives and property on the road, a libertarian view would agree they should be abolished. But most traffic regulations exist to protect everyone else from the regulated driver, not to protect the regulated driver from himself.

As to the rest, I agree with D.O.

Posted by: AAF | Jun 15, 2005 6:01:20 PM


Posted by: Glen Raphael

Detached Observer writes:
"Southeast asia does not have an absence of traffic laws, merely looser laws compared to the US. All the cars going in the same direction still drive on the same side of the road."

That second sentence isn't entirely true. In Southern China (say, in the vicinity of Guangdong), many people still regard traffic laws - even side-of-the-road laws - as suggestions more than rules. If traffic is backed up on one side of the street, people will drive on the other side. This even applies to divided freeways, or at least did so when I was there last (in 1999).

A brief web search finds this picture to get the concept across:

http://www.fuseki.net/china/zhuzhou.html#15

Caption: "Most streets are about this hectic, although usually there isn't quite so much driving on the wrong side of the road. Some times of day this road converts to one-way, but nobody's sure when."

Posted by: Glen Raphael | Jun 15, 2005 6:09:17 PM


Posted by: Glen Raphael

If freedom meant "you can go anywhere you want!" then a freedom lover wouldn't just have to denounce traffic laws, he'd have to denounce walls. And trees and bushes and houses and swimming pools and other drivers - all those get in the way of driving, if driving is what you want to do. So clearly there's something wrong with that definition of freedom. It's incoherent.

But once you add the practical constraint that if your freedom-of-action conflicts with somebody else's there is a mechanism for deciding whose will should prevail, and define "freedom" as only making sense subject to that constraint, you've already invented private property. And once one has accepted the idea that property has owners and the owners can set rules of use to make the property work better for certain ends (such as transportation), then traffic laws are just the rules being set by the owner of the road. Just like the rules at McDonalds are optimized to make getting lunch efficient, the rules of the street are optimized to make getting places efficient.

I think that means I actually agree with EA on something. Oh, no!

Posted by: Glen Raphael | Jun 15, 2005 8:13:35 PM


Posted by: Dan Kervick

I realize this is perhaps off the topic a bit, since Elizabeth's project is to pursue the consequences of taking freedom as a foundational value.

But I wonder why it is a good idea in the first place to try to build a political theory that treats freedom as a foundational value, since freedom, it seems to me, is an instrumental value par excellence, whether one focuses on the opportunity set conception of freedom, or the non-interference conception.

Taking a value that is instrumental as foundational threatens, it seems to me, to cripple and distort the results of the analysis we build on this value.

Posted by: Dan Kervick | Jun 15, 2005 9:46:00 PM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

If the argument against libertarianism is that pushed relentlessly in all cases to its logical extremes it is absurd, the answer to that argument is “So what else is new?”

Indeed recourse to “what most libertarians think” is no argument at all. My point was at least in part that radical, relentlessly thoroughgoing libertarianism of the extreme anarcho-capitalist variety is a straw man. If it is Ms Anderson’s or anyone else’s objective to show it to be obviously and profoundly flawed, it is easily accomplished. Indeed, I’ll be happy to participate. However, while I certainly wouldn’t attempt Mr. Herzog’s “No one I know believes that stuff” line, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of libertarians don’t have any problem at all with a minimalist state that would protect persons and property and, under some circumstances, regulate behavior to facilitate society and commerce. The idea, folks, is not a stateless society, it is a society with a minimalist state. And it isn’t a society in which the roads are one endless bumper-car demolition derby, either.

So let’s return to roads and traffic. Insofar as the road system is a public system there is no private owner to determine its use, so it is in that case necessary for its public ownership by means of government to establish the minimum rules required for its optimum efficiency. But these are ideally only the rules that would by and large evolve under a private scheme anyway. (I say ideally because, alas, the state typically overreaches in anything it regulates; thus, for one minor but annoying example, in mandating seatbelts.) In that regard, I agree entirely with AAF.

However, if AAF is also correct that no rational person would drive on a no-traffic-rule road and if I am correct that reasonable traffic conventions would evolve regardless of road ownership, then the state is not uniquely required in the case of traffic regulation (but for the fact that the roads are public, a different and largely economic issue), and it is therefore not a good example of why maximizing freedom as noninterference is an inadequate basis for ordering society at least insofar as the state is presupposed to be the primary or proper mechanism of establishing and enforcing that order because people would freely order their affairs in such a manner without need of the state anyway. (When was the last time you witnessed grocery shoppers running amok, crashing their carts into one another down the aisles of the supermarket?) And that is all that concerns the libertarian in this case – if something can be accomplished just as well or better without the state, then it should be accomplished without the state.

Finally, and only briefly, I have no problem at all, contra AAF’s statement, supporting freedom as opportunity, properly construed. Also, I think the case for libertarianism is consequentialist as well as deontological. However, this last is not (as of yet) relevant to the current thread.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jun 15, 2005 11:24:24 PM


Posted by: Glen Raphael

DAR: For what it's worth, I consider myself a consequentialist anarchocapitalist of the David Friedman variety. But I don't recognize anarchocapitalism in the viewpoint Elizabeth is denouncing. I don't know of any ACer who would be upset at whatever institution owns the roads having rules about conduct while using them. Like you, I know of no libertarians - including the anarchocapitalists - who do not support procedural rules for commerce and public conduct. The difference with the minarchists is over how rules come to exist and be enforced, not on whether there's a need for rules at all.

Posted by: Glen Raphael | Jun 16, 2005 5:29:26 AM


Posted by: Detached Observer

"In Southern China (say, in the vicinity of Guangdong), many people still regard traffic laws - even side-of-the-road laws - as suggestions more than rules. If traffic is backed up on one side of the street, people will drive on the other side. This even applies to divided freeways, or at least did so when I was there last."

Interesting - but again, this is not an absence of rules, but rather a more malleable set of rules than we are used to.

In any case, to the extent traffic laws are designed to prevent people from taking dangerous risks to their own lives and property on the road, a libertarian view would agree they should be abolished. But most traffic regulations exist to protect everyone else from the regulated driver, not to protect the regulated driver from himself.

I'm not sure the two things can be untangled in this instance. For example: say I want to hire you as my surgeon, but you have no medical training. Most libertarians think the government should not forbid this sort of thing - even though government action would protect me from other people, the danger comes to me as a result of my own actions. Similarly, while I am in danger from other people on the road, the danger comes purely out of my choice to travel in by car on a specific paved piece of land.

"If the argument against libertarianism is that pushed relentlessly in all cases to its logical extremes it is absurd..."

Nah. The argument, as I understand it, takes as a given that libertarianism pushed to its logical extremes is absurd. From this premise, one can go in two directions:

i. One can admit that libertarians do not follow the logical consequences of their arguments, rendering the entire philosophy incoherent.
ii. One can try to offer reasons why the libertarian arguments should not be applied in this or that case. But then these arguments can easily be used to make the case for the redistributive policies libertarians oppose.

Insofar as the road system is a public system there is no private owner to determine its use, so it is in that case necessary for its public ownership by means of government to establish the minimum rules required for its optimum efficiency.

Why is it necessary to establish rules required for optimum efficiency? Why is it not necessary to establish rules that maximize freedom-as-non-interference?

Posted by: Detached Observer | Jun 16, 2005 5:50:16 AM


Posted by: johnt

Much fun is had at the lack of fanatical consistency on the part of muddleheaded libertarians,ho ho. Let's try another approach. Liberals believe in choice,a woman's right to her body,presumably,not being sexists,they therefore also believe in choice for men. But if choice is a value,and being for men and not restricted to abortion,must they not support tax cuts,deregulation,voluntary social security,etc. "Oh, but that different"!!Bull---t it is. There is no reason why a person may not believe in something in principle and realize that in a mass democratic society[ 300 million people] other considerations enter into it. Perhaps the wits who are making merry at the expense of hapless libertarians and conservatives might search their profound souls for a hint of imperfection,but I doubt they'll try. EA's series of posts is an indirect attack on various concepts of freedom which will leave you,where? The undefined "opportunity sets" will eventually emerge,along with other subtleties,to a grand expanded welfare state,of the sort that would make a French politicians mouth water. And she's got the idiots arguing over traffic lights and whether or not you should follow your principles over a cliff. BTW I would think the less interference one encounters the more freedom one has. But that's just a general principle,remembering that at the end of the road opportunity sets,so called,equal transfer payments. Now back to traffic lights.

Posted by: johnt | Jun 16, 2005 10:51:01 AM


Posted by: Paul Torek

I'm finding it hard to keep the players straight without a scorecard. Are there any minimal-government fans here who do not agree with EA that promoting freedom-as-opportunity is *an* important consideration in favor of a given policy, Constitution, or what have you? If not, let's move along. If so, now would be a good time to explain your alternative viewpoint. So far most critics seem to be expressing something in the range from distrust to horror, without actually disagreeing explicitly with any of EA's main points.

P.S. If someone would kindly tell me which codes (HTML? something else?) one uses here to italicize, insert weblinks, etc., I would appreciate it.

Posted by: Paul Torek | Jun 16, 2005 7:53:36 PM


Posted by: progressivelibertarian

Some points for Elizabeth to consider:

(1) The intuitions of natural-rights libertarianism are pretty poorly captured by the idea that: (a) negative liberty is, descriptively, non-interference with the movement or actions of agents and (b) this sort of liberty is the ultimate or most important of political values. Some libertarians -- too many -- think something like this; but such a view is pretty far afield from the mainstream of the classical liberal tradition. And it is silly. Try this instead: (a) certain sorts of negative liberty or noninterference are really important to individuals and are best achieved collectively and in a minimally egalitarian manner (by enforcing public rules that secure formally equal zones of such non-interference for all) and (b) with some exceptions, enforcing some such rules is the best way to achieve by force (in the narrow sense of physical compulsion or threat thereof) reasonably fair mutual benefit.

(2) Libertarianism, on such a view, is not a fetish about the obvious and supposedly supreme wrongness of literal physical compulsion, but rather the view that government appropriately uses force (again, in the narrow sense) only, or almost only, for the purpose of securing formally equal realms of consequential or important non-interference for all. (So far, my characterization is consistent with realms of non-interference which do not involve strongly exclusive private property or many other elements of capitalism; my characterization here is quite general.)

(3) What is being traded off for what in the sorts of cases that concern you? It might be that we each appropriately trade off relatively inconsequential or unimportant negative freedoms (and relatively inconsequential positive freedoms or opportunities and other benefits) for consequential negative freedoms. The sort of tradeoff that you refer to, then, might not be a tradeoff for some expanded set of relatively consequential opportunities. Such opportunities are no doubt important (as are benefits generally) -- properly, each of us seeks his or her fair share in any scheme of mutual benefit (though what counts as a fair share and why will depend on one's fundamental normative and moral assumptions and one's conception of what the state is for). A libertarian might claim that it is too epistemically and institutionally messy to determine fair shares of opportunity or benefit; or she might claim that, human nature being as it is, perverse incentives and the development of entitlement mentalities will undermine any general scheme for the direct pursuit of fair shares (especially one achieved by physical compulsion or the threat thereof rather than, say, moral pressure). She might claim, instead, that, for the most part, protecting certain realms of negative liberty will be most effective in achieving fair shares of opportunity and benefit.

Posted by: progressivelibertarian | Jun 16, 2005 8:10:56 PM


Posted by: AAF

D.A.R.: I think you are seeing libertarian bashing, or libertarian strawmen, where there is none. No one is claiming that libertarians are, or should be, against traffic rules. (Please note -- I have pretty consistently used "rules" instead of "laws" because I don't think it's relevant here whether these are state imposed, private-owner imposed, or social-convention imposed rules).

What I (and I think EA) was saying is (1) libertarians do, in fact, support some reasonable rules of the road (whether imposed by law, by a private owner, or by social convention), just as everyone does; (2) freedom as non-interference does not adequately explain why anyone (libertarian or not) would support rules of the road; and therefore (3) everyone implicitly rejects freedom as non-interference, *including* people who think they believe in freedom-as-noninterference as a high or exclusive ideal.

There's no attempt here to call out libertarians for not being caricatures of themselves. It's just an attempt to get people who *think* they are big believers in freedom-as-noninterference to take a closer look at their own views and maybe recognize that they have a hitherto unrecognized affinity for freedom-as-opportunity.

Since you (D.A.R.) openly support freedom as opportunity at least somewhat or in some ways, this line of reasoning is not necessary for you. It's put out there for freedom-as-opportunity rejectionists.

Posted by: AAF | Jun 16, 2005 9:22:25 PM


Posted by: Jadagul

Paul Torek:

Italics are done by <i>italicized text</i>: italicized text. Bolding is similar: <b>bold text</b>.

Hyperlinks are done by <a href="your url here">link text</a>; <a href="http://left2right.typepad.com">Left2Right</a> creates Left2Right. This is a good reference for anything else you need.

While I'm here, I have a lot of support for EA's argument in this post. I'm a fairly strong libertarian, but mainly because I think less government intervention is generally the best way to provide people with resources, opportunities, etc. If I thought an activist, intrusive regulatory state would really make pretty much everyone richer, happier, and better off, I would probably support it (on the other hand, I oppose policies that benefit some citizens by actively screwing others over--think slavery--on more fundamentally principled grounds as well).

If I understand EA's argument right, it really reminds me of a Charles Taylor article ("Atomism" in Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers, ii (1985)), which argues, in essense, that if we support individual rights because, say, we value the ability to make rational choices, we also have to support the formation of an environment that allows people to make rational choices. Oddly enough, this was intended as a rebuttal to libertarianism (specifically Nozick's libertarianism), but actually helped me find the reasoning I was looking for to support my notion of natural rights--I think they largely stem from the fact that societies that don't respect natural rights almost always become complete disasters.

Posted by: Jadagul | Jun 16, 2005 10:31:15 PM


Posted by: le sequoit

Hey, how did you tag your tags so they wouldn't tag...never mind.

I am very interested to hear EA put forth some potential examples of freedom as an opportunity set. Given the absolutely paralyzing effect the lack of securely held health care benefits has on the horizontal (and consequently much of the vertical) mobility of the American underclasses, I might suggest that this is a good place to start.

Posted by: le sequoit | Jun 17, 2005 12:20:43 AM


Posted by: Larry

Paul Torek: Are there any minimal-government fans here who do not agree with EA that promoting freedom-as-opportunity is *an* important consideration in favor of a given policy, Constitution, or what have you?

I'm a little pressed for time and so just wanted to insert a kind of placeholder here, to the effect that:

- I support promoting freedom;

- I also support promoting opportunity;

- these are not the same;

- nor are they in opposition;

- in fact, they are related -- in the sense that promoting freedom is the best way to promote opportunity, and promoting opportunity is best done by promoting freedom;

- but the conflation of freedom and opportunity is a common tactic used to undercut freedom, with the idea of promoting other agendas (such as, typically, equality of substance).

Posted by: Larry | Jun 17, 2005 12:52:05 AM


Posted by: le sequoit

Larry,

What of my example of health insurance? Do you not think the enhanced ability to reemploy oneself might lead to some very real advancement of our socio-economic condition?

Your arguments take a highly defensive tone, the old Reaganesque, "There you go again" stuff. If we give an inch on assault rifles, you'll be at my door tommorrow to take my 12 gauge, etc.

EA is hardly advancing an "equality of substance" agenda. Her "tactic" is to state her beliefs and their formulative processes.

I don't entirely agree with the conflation of private property and freedom, yet I don't consider it evil that someone should, especially as food for thought.

Posted by: le sequoit | Jun 17, 2005 8:31:01 AM


Posted by: Larry

le sequoit:

Well, I'm certainly not saying that EA is "evil" in any sense of the word, but I do think she's pursuing an agenda in these posts that she hasn't yet entirely fessed up to, but that I suspect is motivated by that old notion of substantive equality -- which will turn out to have the effect of maximizing the net social "opportunity sets", etc. So, yes, I'd agree that I'm a tad defensive in this context, especially given the title that she's chosen for her series: "So You Want to Live in a Free Society, Huh?" (Subtitle: "Well Guess What? Turns Out That Means You Want to live in a Highly-Taxed, Highly-Regulated, Highly-Bureaucratic Welfare State After All; Oh, and Your Guy, That Hayek Fellow? Turns Out He Agrees With Me.".) I've seen this sort of exercise before.

What of my example of health insurance? Do you not think the enhanced ability to reemploy oneself might lead to some very real advancement of our socio-economic condition?

Okay, let's say so (and I'm assuming here that you're talking about government-supplied health insurance). What about mandatory, universal, government supplied shelter insurance? Same thing, no? Food insurance, same thing? Transportation insurance? Clothing insurance? Job insurance? Shoot, why not vacation insurance, French dining insurance, big-screen TV insurance? I know Don Herzog would say these latter, especially, are "ludicrous", and that no one's really agitating for such things, but why not, exactly? You say that health insurance is "a good place to start", but start toward what? Aren't all of those goods, even the ludicrous ones, potential real additions to one's "opportunity set"? And if it works to use the state to average out opportunities for health care, why wouldn't that work for any kind of "opportunities"? And remember, freedom is opportunity.

Do you think maybe we could work out a sort of back-door socialism in this way?


Posted by: Larry | Jun 17, 2005 9:52:40 AM


Posted by: Bret

For those advocating for nationalized health care, consider this regarding Canada's system:

For more than a decade, prime ministers and premiers have boasted about how [Canadian] medicare is the best health care system in the world. In election after election, they have pledged to make it even better.

But in a split decision yesterday, the justices of the Supreme Court of Canada exposed that rhetoric for what it plainly is: A lie, a shallow promise, a political tactic employed by the federal Liberals to gain, and retain, the keys to government. [...]

[T]he judges were unwilling to let governments twiddle their thumbs any longer, while countless Canadians suffer and die while on lengthy wait lists for medical treatment. [...]

The case was brought to the high court by Dr. Jacques Chaoulli and George Zeliotis, a 74-year-old Montreal businessman who contended he waited too long for his hip surgery in the mid-'90s. They said the waiting lists in the publicly funded system have become so long that they violate the Charter of Rights' guarantee of life, liberty and security of the person ...

Universal health coverage? Great idea, but doesn't seem to work so well.

There is little doubt that some have their "opportunity set" increased because of Canada's universal healthcare. The price is that so many others have their "opportunity set" severely minimized. For example, I know of a case where a woman had to wait 6 months to get a biopsy of a tumor. Well, turned out it was malignant and because of the 6 month delay she died. This happens all of the time.

It's not fair, in my opinion, to screw the median person and the majority to help out the lowest percentile people.

Posted by: Bret | Jun 17, 2005 12:01:15 PM


Posted by: Bret

Oops. The link in my comment above should be here.

Posted by: Bret | Jun 17, 2005 12:12:19 PM


Posted by: le sequoit

Larry,

You don't wake up one day to find your housing bill up 45%. Or your food bill. You don't wake up one day and find that you must now buy 100 times as much gasiline as you did yesterday, and that since such a need cancels your membership, you must now pay twice the members'price.

Your continuance is faulty and dismissive of the question as to whether the health insurance situation is indeed a case where dramatic "opportunity sets" can be bought at a relatively low price, and whether such a plan, nationalized or not, might not result in a net increased realization of freedom.

Posted by: le sequoit | Jun 17, 2005 9:27:59 PM


Posted by: Larry

le sequoit: You don't wake up one day to find your housing bill up 45%

I haven't myself, it's true, but I know of people who have.

Regardless, your point seems to come down to price volatility, and the notion that that (plus some notion of need, perhaps) makes an industry, a good, or a service a prime candidate for state control and provision (I'm assuming that's what we're talking about, but if not I'd be happy to be corrected). It's no doubt true that government can often average things out in such a way that major price shocks can be avoided, if that's what the government wants to do. The question is whether or not there are other costs associated with such an arrangement -- costs to both freedom and opportunity -- and whether there wouldn't be other, less costly (in both senses) means of smoothing out such shocks. I believe the answer in both cases is that there are.


Posted by: Larry | Jun 18, 2005 11:16:24 AM


Posted by: Robert

The traffic example begs the question. We don't know what would happen in our culture if we had traffic anarchy (no rules and restrictions). Maybe there would be an emergent order that would provide effective mediation of conflicts and bottlenecks; that order might even be more effective/efficient than the command and control model that we generally use now.

In fact, experience tends to back the view that the existing system is nonessential. I've driven in cities where the power to the signals has failed, and so have most people. There is a lot of inefficiency created at each intersection - but traffic does continue to move as people work out solutions (generally, taking turns). There's no reason to believe that the observed inefficiencies would not diminish in magnitude over time as people worked out informal methods of mediating conflicts over the constrained resource.

There does have to be some underlying formal structure for emergent order to function, but in the case of transportation, physics probably is sufficiently formal; thou shalt not violate f=ma.

Posted by: Robert | Jun 20, 2005 1:11:31 PM


Posted by: Ampersand

I realize that the traffic example is not the whole point. Nonetheless, this article - about an emerging movement in road design to do without traffic lights and signs, because (they believe) well-designed roads accomplish the same ends more effectively - is interesting. (The article was pointed out to me by one of my blog readers after I linked to your post).

Posted by: Ampersand | Jun 20, 2005 2:07:57 PM


Posted by: lth

Just to show off, to 'untag' tags, one uses "escape characters" to produce something that looks like the tag you want once it has been parsed by the HTML parser. So you write substitute characters for < and >. These are written as &lt; and &gt;. So <i> is written &lt; i &gt; .

And, to go one further, to produce an escape character that doesn't get parsed into its corresponding character you use &amp; to replace the ampersand at the beginning of the escape character, terminating it before it completes as a different escape character. Thus, &lt; i &gt; is written as &amp;lt i &amp;gt; .

Posted by: lth | Jun 21, 2005 9:52:32 AM


Posted by: arbitraryaardvark

Nice post. I remain interested in seeing where this is headed.

Posted by: arbitraryaardvark | Jun 24, 2005 6:22:18 PM


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