Home > Economics - General > Libertopia, with asterisks — Crooked Timber

Libertopia, with asterisks — Crooked Timber

August 15th, 2010

As I was reminded in comments last time, snarking about libertarians is not a very productive substitute for writing well-argued posts about The Way Forward for Social Democracy, or writing my nearly-due examiners report for that PhD thesis, or revising my article on climate change on discounting, or getting the yard under control. But if I was capable of responding to that kind of reasoning, I wouldn’t be a blogger would I. So, in lieu of something useful, here’s a thought that occurred to me.

Among the more plausible candidates for an Actually Existing Libertopia, the US in C19 (with asterisks) is pretty prominent. Also, on the basis of fairly thin historical evidence, the Iceland of the sagas. It seems to me that these examples have one crucial point in common that hasn’t received much attention

Looking at the US case, it seems fair to say that, if you ignore the asterisks (women, blacks, native Americans and the emerging industrial working class), the 19th century setup was a fair approximation to the libertarian ideal. I’m going to ignore the industrial part of the economy for the moment, and, for the sake of argument, treat slavery and Jim Crow as aberrations peculiar to the South. Finally, and again for the sake of argument, I’ll concede the possibility that the legal rights of women and men could have been equalized (at least in formal terms) without upsetting the C19 applecart.

That leaves on remaining asterisk – native Americans – and it seems to me that this is the one that can’t be avoided. In a largely agricultural society, the historical norm has been the emergence of an aristocracy based on the ownership of land, and ruling over a tenant peasantry or landless laborers. The only case that doesn’t happen is where there is an appealing exit option for the peasants, such as migration to the city.

But another exit option exists wherever there is a frontier (that is, a border with a less militarily advanced society) as in C19 US. With a frontier, agricultural land is freely available to anyone willing and able to kill, drive away or enslave the current occupiers. That obviously makes life difficult for any aspiring aristocrats[1]. The Icelanders were in a similar position. If any local jarl got too big for his boots, it was a simple matter to hop into a longship and go off to loot some abbeys.

It is, as my Marxist friends used to say, no coincidence that the end of the era of (white male agricultural) US libertarianism came to an end with the “closing” of the frontier. I’d guess, though I have no real evidence that the same was true in Iceland once the Viking option was no longer available.

The standard Lockean case for (propertarian) libertarianism rests on the (universally false) assumption that an appropriation of land leaves “enough and as good” for anyone else. As long as land can be stolen from people who are outside the pale in one way or another, Lockeans (and a fortiori Jeffersonians) can convince themselves that they are devotees of liberty rather than of the forcible imposition of property rights in land (and, for Jeffersonians, other people). Once there’s no more land left to steal, it becomes obvious that propertarianism is fundamentally dependent on coercion, just like (for example) socialism or any other form of government.

fn1. The only place a real agricultural aristocracy emerged was in the South with slavery and then, in a more attenuated form, with sharecropping, dependent ultimately on Jim Crow.

Posted via email from John’s posterous

Categories: Economics - General Tags:
  1. paul walter
    August 15th, 2010 at 20:46 | #1

    ” not a very productive substitute…” . But gee, it can be emotionally soothing at times, the outraged CNS.
    Now, back to post..

  2. August 16th, 2010 at 00:56 | #2

    Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas in 1492 was followed by More’s Utopia in 1515. Britain formed a number of colonies in North America after 1606; but having offered generous terms to chartered companies and the freedom of self-government to some of them, it was not easy to retain their allegiance or resume control over them.

    Locke was undoubtedly influential in colonial affairs having served as as Secretary of the Board of Trade and Plantations and Secretary to the Lords and Proprietors of the Carolinas. This helped to shape his ideas on international trade and economics. However, his role as an adviser in formation of the Bank of England is often overlooked.

    The British navy was in a weak position after recurring international conflict; and the civil war and 1689 English Revolution were significant distractions. The Bank of England was established as the government’s banker in 1694 and became a model for centralised banking. The Bank regularised financing to rebuild the navy; and the rebuilding took on aspects of commercial enterprise when colonial expansion and the advancement of science went hand-in-hand with the growth of commerce. Of particular economic importance were improvements in navigation through astronomy and hydrographic mapping; and improvements in crops and agriculture through advances in biological science. By 1900, the Royal Navy was the largest in the world and the British Empire was the most extensive in world history.

    Profits emerging from British exploitation of colonial resources allowed private interests to lend money to government; and the government was then required to redeem loans and pay compounding interest. Private interests were well represented in parliament to authorise naval and military expeditions; the expeditions gave increased access to colonial resources; and military and commercial interests could support each other for as long as military force could assist trade. Overall, this military and commercial symbiosis encouraged a rapacious ‘first in, best dressed’ mentality that became pervasive in resource management and international relations. In signing the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Britain and France ended more than 150 years of recurring bilateral conflict. Whitehall and Versailles tried to get non-voting citizens to pay taxes and other imposts to discharge vast war debts owed to financiers. In the process, they stimulated revolutions in America after 1776 and France after 1789 that changed the world forever.

    The libertarian ethic of ‘blow you Jack so long as I’m OK’ seems to overlook the extensive history of what can happen if Jack does not accept injustice and decides to retaliate. Seemingly, issues related to distribution of wealth are at the core of most political discussion. It might help if people could be more open, honest and candid about it.

  3. BilB
    August 16th, 2010 at 09:50 | #3

    Brittain has at least 2 Libertopian islands within its realm. One on the left side and one further South off the coast of Africa (I will have to rewatch the “Islands of Brittain” series to be more precise). These warrant some investigation as to their origins, success, and future. The internet, however, guarantees that even if, once discovered, all of our local libertarians flocked off, they would still be able to relentlessly pester the hell out of everyone else.

  4. August 16th, 2010 at 10:51 | #4

    @BilB
    A 1981 rticle called ‘Phoenix: ashes to ashes’ at http://www.newint.org/issue101/phoenix.htm gives an account of some ill-fated libertopian ventures in the Pacific. In the past week or so I have read internet articles of other ventures close to the UK that I can’t find just at the moment.

  5. BilB
    August 16th, 2010 at 11:36 | #5
  6. Alice
    August 16th, 2010 at 12:12 | #6

    @BilB
    Thieves Bilb – nothing but thieves… hiding behind their ideas of libertopia. They have got away with an absolute fortune in tax avoidance from advanced economies… and yet still they whinge about paying taxes and welfare and welfare cheats. using places like Jersey the costs of welfare cheats are miniscule. No wonder the so called advanced economies are in real trouble now.

    What a sick joke neoliberalism / libertarianism / free markets is and has become.

  7. Jim Birch
    August 16th, 2010 at 12:56 | #7

    Tiny tax havens are hardly libertarian states in any real economic sense. They bear more resemblance to pirate ships, except that they don’t move.

  8. BilB
    August 16th, 2010 at 13:12 | #8

    Hong Kong? 5% tax. Survives on revenues from racing industry gambling.

  9. August 16th, 2010 at 16:22 | #9

    John S Cook :
    …In signing the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Britain and France ended more than 150 years of recurring bilateral conflict…

    No, that didn’t end it. Not even if you are only considering colonial conflicts; as well as the American War of Independence, Malta, Syria and Egypt still involved outright hostilities during the Napoleonic Wars (during which the French also aided Indian potentates against the British and encouraged the Americans to complete the Continental Policy’s blockade of strategic resources, first with an embargo and then an invasion of Canada). Matters almost developed into hostilities later, too, e.g. with the ejection of the French from New Zealand around the middle of the 19th century and from the Sudan at Fashoda at the end of the 19th century (these are still remembered in France, if not as much in Britain).

  10. August 16th, 2010 at 16:36 | #10

    Once there’s no more land left to steal, it becomes obvious that propertarianism is fundamentally dependent on coercion, just like (for example) socialism or any other form of government.

    But that is not at issue. Of course coercion – force – is involved. What is at issue is whether aggressive force is involved. The claim is that maintaining property rights is essentially defensive in nature, whether of land or anything else, provided only that it was justly acquired.

    It is that last criterion that has to be applied. It is irrelevant whether just original appropriation (say, of land) remains possible; what counts under later conditions is whether later acquisitions were made justly, i.e. obtained in a just way from earlier just owners. So, just original appropriation is still significant whether or not it is a usual or even an actually existing case, since it gives rise to secondary cases.

    I am not asserting any general or particular opinion on any given situation. Rather, I am (I hope) clearing away a misunderstanding of how these things are actually understood by those who use these insights and approaches.

  11. jquiggin
    August 16th, 2010 at 16:47 | #11

    “It is irrelevant whether just original appropriation (say, of land) remains possible; what counts under later conditions is whether later acquisitions were made justly, i.e. obtained in a just way from earlier just owners. ”

    But this is never true. Every square metre of land on the planet has been stolen (or appropriated by states which is the same thing for libertarians), many times over in most cases.

  12. Marginal Notes
    August 16th, 2010 at 17:36 | #12

    What about states that recognise customary rights to land that can only be acquired or extinguished by payment of compensation?

  13. August 16th, 2010 at 17:41 | #13

    The standard Lockean case for (propertarian) libertarianism rests on the (universally false) assumption that an appropriation of land leaves “enough and as good” for anyone else.

    By the way, has anyone else ever noticed that, with finite amounts of such land, this formulation is subject to the unexpected hanging paradox? There is a minimum size of such parcels, to qualify as enough. The last such parcel of land cannot be taken up under this formulation. Therefore the second last similarly cannot, and so on, until the first such cannot – which means that no land can be taken up under this formulation.

  14. August 16th, 2010 at 17:43 | #14

    jquiggin :
    “It is irrelevant whether just original appropriation (say, of land) remains possible; what counts under later conditions is whether later acquisitions were made justly, i.e. obtained in a just way from earlier just owners. ”
    But this is never true. Every square metre of land on the planet has been stolen (or appropriated by states which is the same thing for libertarians), many times over in most cases.

    Ah, but, under this approach land that is currently like that has no just owner – and thus, it may be justly appropriated.

  15. paul walter
    August 16th, 2010 at 18:34 | #15

    Well done, Prof- a pernicious idea that needed exposing..

  16. August 16th, 2010 at 23:13 | #17

    @John S Cook

    The thing is, 1763 didn’t end any such 150 year stretch. Not only were France and the kingdoms of Britain allied for about half a century between the siege of La Rochelle and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but also the same pattern of on and off war continued from 1688 until 1815. 1763 marked no break.

  17. August 17th, 2010 at 06:15 | #18

    @P.M.Lawrence
    I didn’t intend to start another war; and the signing of a treaty in 1763 seems to be indisputable. My impression was that 1763 ended the on-and-off struggle for territory in North America that lasted from the time of the first British settlement. Some have described it as the first global war.

    My principal source was William R Nester, The first global war: Britain, France, and the fate of North America, 1756-1775, Wesport CT: Praeger, 2000, pp.vii-viii.

    However, my main point was that paying for war was a thing that the British tried to impose on the North American colonists and a series of events led to the American Revolution. It seems to be a source of much of the anti-tax rhetoric that occurs in the US to this day.

  18. Peter T
    August 17th, 2010 at 16:35 | #19

    The Icelandic case is the more interesting. After 1014 and 1066 ( the battles of Clontarf and Stamford Bridge) going viking ceased to be an option, so external sources of income dried up. The original pattern of numerous small-holders meeting as equals in local and national parliaments was gradually replaced by an oligarchy of major chiefs, as land and other resources became more concentrated. In the end, rotten shark was a delicacy.

    How does libertarianism prevent the ordinary accidents of life gradually concentrating assets – and hence power – in ever fewer hands?

  19. August 17th, 2010 at 18:50 | #20

    John S Cook :
    @P.M.Lawrence
    I didn’t intend to start another war; and the signing of a treaty in 1763 seems to be indisputable. My impression was that 1763 ended the on-and-off struggle for territory in North America that lasted from the time of the first British settlement. Some have described it as the first global war.

    .
    .
    .

    However, my main point was that paying for war was a thing that the British tried to impose on the North American colonists and a series of events led to the American Revolution. It seems to be a source of much of the anti-tax rhetoric that occurs in the US to this day.

    The thing is, while 1763 did indeed set up pretty much the frontiers that ended up, it did not actually mark the end of the struggles over them between the French and the British, nor between those and yet others. France and Spain were both fighting to regain territories there during the American War of Independence, and while France didn’t manage it, Spain did (the Floridas). Later still, France regained Louisiana from Spain (just before selling it to the USA, when it turned out to be non-viable in the face of British naval power). France and Britain kept on fighting over the area on and off for the next half century, it’s just that France didn’t recover anything and Britain didn’t lose anything directly to France (although France did manage to make Britain lose its earlier mainland holdings south of the maritime provinces to other combatants).

  20. August 17th, 2010 at 20:35 | #21

    @P.M.Lawrence
    Who paid for the wars?

  21. August 17th, 2010 at 20:38 | #22

    @P.M.Lawrence
    And who benefited?

  22. David Cake
    August 18th, 2010 at 16:42 | #23

    I’m struck by how much libertarianism in science fiction (Heinlein, etc) is loosely associated with the ‘High Frontier’ meme of endless human expansion into space. I think while many libertarians would deny the necessity of new land for a successful libertopia, they still understand the association.

  23. August 18th, 2010 at 23:41 | #24

    jquiggin :
    “It is irrelevant whether just original appropriation (say, of land) remains possible; what counts under later conditions is whether later acquisitions were made justly, i.e. obtained in a just way from earlier just owners. ”
    But this is never true. Every square metre of land on the planet has been stolen (or appropriated by states which is the same thing for libertarians), many times over in most cases.

    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allodial_title – some lands – admittedly rare – have no overlord and ownership does not involve obligations to pay land taxes. Presumably, they solve the problem of communal defence of territory in some other way. The obsession that Libertopians have in establishing and defending small ‘territories’ seem to involve a cost and loss of freedom that is much greater than simply being decent citizens and helping to improve the laws.

    In the 1700s, people were impressed or conscripted into military service and were devoted to the service of the state; more in defence of empire than in defence of the homeland. They were not represented in parliament yet their service could be likened to taxation. In any event, it was hard to reconcile with the political slogan of ‘no taxation without representation’ that arose in America in the 1770s and was revived in Australia of the 1830s. Seemingly, the electoral franchise grew into a more universal franchise as a response to increasing commitments to war; especially World War 1. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electoral_franchise.

    At http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenures_Abolition_Act_1660 – one of the first statutes passed after the Restoration of the Crown after the civil war was an act that abolished many of the feudal incidents of tenure and replaced them with a simpler system of tax. It coexisted with the tithe that applied mainly to agricultural lands and still exists in some countries – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tithe. This provided a system of social welfare in agrarian communities.

    Land in most Commonwealth countries is said to be held ‘of the Crown’ to acknowledge the state as an overlord; and land can then be compulsorily acquired by the state, usually though not always subject to payment of compensation.

    In the US, the colonists first declared and then fought for their independence from Britain. While land titles existed under original grants made by colonial governments, the new federal government began to acquire territories. The issue of land grants – called land patents in the US – became a federal responsibility over large areas of the US. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_patent. The term ‘eminent domain’ recognises the republic as an overlord in the US – See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eminent_domain

    Questions remained about what was to be given and what was to be reserved in an ‘original’ land grant; and how large the parcels should be. Queensland still retains large areas under various conditions of ‘state leasehold’. These are complicated issues. However, an idea that deserves to be called ‘Utopian’ is that closer land settlement could break up the squatting monopolies and create the ideal ‘living area’ – not too small but not too large either. The problem with making these grants prior to availability of aerial photography and other mapping techniques was that it was difficult to know what was being granted. That was especially true of subsurface minerals, oil, water and gas.

    It seems to have become fashionable to either misunderstand or deliberately misrepresent entitlements in land and water; especially where taxation proposals or compulsory acquisitions are mooted. The standard of debate in popular journalism on these issues is disappointing.

  24. James Squire
    August 26th, 2010 at 19:47 | #25

    You guys are just a bunch of old trolls. liek srsly guyz. use the internet for something better, like neopets or something.

  25. Alice
    August 26th, 2010 at 19:56 | #26

    All I know is Terje P took his libertarianism to the vote in Benelong and all he got was 253 votes. Less than the informal vote – so it seems every dedicated libertarian is in this blog arguing their case (all five of them).

  26. paul walter
    August 26th, 2010 at 20:04 | #27

    Alice, Terje only represents one side of libertarianism, any way. That is, the US “dry” version that is deeply perturbed about middle class property rights rather than than civil rights and liberties.
    Still, good on him for standing even if he was, to our way of thinking, unsuccessful in a poor cause.

  27. Alice
    August 26th, 2010 at 20:22 | #28

    @paul walter
    Paul – I know – its good he stands – how many of us like myself whinge and dont stand?. Ill give Terje that.

  28. James Squire
    August 26th, 2010 at 20:31 | #29

    @David Cake, space? do you play starcraft 2? such a communist notion embedded in an almost ‘harmless’ game, yet corrupting the minds of those who innocently endeavor on ‘having a good time’ stop using the hard hammer and sharp sickle that crosses and corrodes predetermined and pre-detrimental societal ideological pathways. imo anyway. pardon the verbose, i’m not looking to go over your head with this one.

Comments are closed.