There is a common argument used by libertarians in defense of a free society that attempts to characterize a libertarian system as one that should be preferable to all because it would be a system of panarchy, where everyone may voluntarily choose the sort of economic and governmental system in which he would like to live. The argument is most often deployed as an attempt to appease socialists and show that the two sides can peacefully disagree and coëxist. The following example is a quote from the Cato Institute’s David Boaz:
One difference between libertarianism and socialism is that a socialist society can’t tolerate groups of people practicing freedom, but a libertarian society can comfortably allow people to choose voluntary socialism. If a group of people—even a very large group—wanted to purchase land and own it in common, they would be free to do so. The libertarian legal order would require only that no one be coerced into joining or giving up his property.1
While it is true that a libertarian society would permit a group to purchase land and manage that land communally, this does not reconcile differences between libertarians and socialists. To suggest that it does is to ignore a foundational discrepancy between the two camps—their theories of property. As Boaz says, the libertarian will allow communal ownership and management of the property, but the socialist will argue that he should not have to purchase the land in the first place because monopolistic land ownership is illegitimate. For better or for worse, the socialist is forced to play by the propertarian rules of the libertarian legal system before he can even establish a commune.
If tolerance to this degree is the best that a libertarian society can offer, it does not set itself very far apart from today’s statist status quo. In 2006, “more than 1,100 such [communes], known as eco-villages and co-housing communities, have been built or are in the planning stages” in the United States.2 These communes operate within the legal constraints of the United States; there is no mass government crackdown on communal living any more than there would be in a libertarian society. The same is true of the kibbutzim in Israel where, until recently, not even clothes could be owned individually.3 In fact, the socialist may even find the status quo preferable to a libertarian society because it is possible that the State could grant the land to the commune instead of requiring they participate in the capitalist system and purchase the land.
Though it is true that it would be more permissible for something resembling socialism to exist in a libertarian society than it would be for a libertarian microsociety to exist in a socialist system, the theories of property are still incompatible and socialism in its full form could not exist within a libertarian legal framework. This does not mean that a libertarian legal system is undesirable or is not the best alternative, but that the differences between socialism and libertarianism cannot be reconciled by merely agreeing to disagree. Socialists do not find Boaz’s argument as conciliatory as libertarians like to think. Instead, the debate over property should continue, because as long as theories of property remain incompatible, one side will always be violently aggressing—by the opposite camp’s definition—against the other and the disagreement will always have the potential to lead to conflict.
1. David Boaz, “The Coming Libertarian Age” Cato Policy Report (January/February 1997).
2. Andrew Jacobs, “Extreme Makeover, Commune Edition” The New York Times (11 June 2006).
3. David Hardaker, “Israel’s kibbutz falls to market forces” Australian Broadcasting Company (7 March 2007)
[…] in the month, I posted an article about how libertarianism’s and socialism’s theories of property are incompatible and , […]
“the socialist will argue that he should not have to purchase the land in the first place because monopolistic land ownership is illegitimate. For better or for worse, the socialist is forced to play by the propertarian rules of the libertarian legal system before he can even establish a commune.”
Are most socialists really so opposed to any remote semblance of property rights that even drawing a border around the edges of their commune offends their sensibilities? Is that such a non-starter for them? I don’t think socialism necessarily requires an absence of distinction between places. Even they need a manner of differentiating between the area over which the system operates, and the area over which it does not. Sweden and Norway are sometimes complimented as successful socialist-leaning countries – not pure socialism but close enough for many people’s liking – and they still have borders. Within the confines of those borders, individual property rights may be blurry or even nonexistent, but there is an edge.
Regarding the pragmatics of the initial purchase, I speculate there are enough wealthy, landowning socialists in the status quo – or at least enough states who claim to own the whole country – that no physical exchange would be necessary. Both libertarians and socialists presently live on plots of land to which the other does not take interest. If both of us snapped our fingers tomorrow and declared “The revolution has taken place – we now operate under our dream system,” neither would need to bother the other in order to get their way. We may have different reasons for not bothering the other (socialists because they have everything they need in their little commune, libertarians because we conceptualize their commune as their property) but the way we rationalize it is less important then the theoretical ability to peacefully coexist.
Anyways, love the blog. Keep up the good work.
Brilliant rebuttal Andrew. I could not have put it better myself. By saying that Libertarian society and voluntary socialism is incompatible with each other the author is trying to dictate the meaning of both to suit his assertion.
Some may say Voluntary Socialism is a contradiction in terms as socialism in its traditional sense relies on state violence.
But if Socialism can be reinvented in a voluntary sense then that voluntary aspect alone would make it compatible with the Non Aggression Principle, which is supposed to define Libertarian philosophy.
The idea that libertarians are inherently capitalist is a gross misrepresentation in my opinion as the true defining factor is the Non Aggression Principle, which can lend itself equally to a free market system or a voluntary collective, or any hybrid in between.
The key is the voluntary aspect.
When the initiation of force is discarded the Non Aggression Principle becomes the only defining restriction/limit on freedom and the demands of the libertarian is satisfied.
Libertarians are not inherently favouring the free market, it is simply an acceptable system as long as no amount of wealth allows anyone the power to violate the NAP. That may be why many libertarians gravitate to the free market as their ideal system, but the NAP allows for anything that does not initiate force.
Issues of land ownership are more complicated because they involve definitions, as does the issue of children and animal rights. But the basic tenet of the NAP is defined by its opposition to the initiation of force and the prohibition against causing harm or loss to another. As such both capitalism and collectivism (with out force) can co exist with relative ease.
This would all be sound if there were a shared definition of ‘voluntary’ between libertarians and socialists. The libertarian definition of the word—the one that is foundational for the NAP—regards absolute ownership and control of resources and things as legitimate. The socialist, on the other hand, regards any sort of absentee ownership as illegitimate. In a hypothetical libertarian society, a band of socialists seizing control of a factory or a rental housing unit would obviously be regarded as aggression. But not by socialists, who would see the libertarian status quo not just as less than ideal, but as involuntary and unjust. The two are not compatible.
You say that “both capitalism and collectivism (with out force) can co exist with relative ease,” which is another instance of this widespread misconception among libertarians that the NAP doesn’t require force. Enforcing private property requires force just as much as enforcing communal property. We might say that one is morally superior to the other, but they both depend on force to exist, unless there is no difference of opinion on what sort of property régime should exist. That is, unless there are no socialists in a libertarian society.