Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Justification for a Libertarian Society from a Methodological Individualist Perspective

By Robert Wenzel

I have been thinking and reading a lot about the nature of a libertarian society and how one can justify the existence of such.

There appears to be two main approaches that dominate the justification for such a society, the utilitarian approach and the natural rights approach.

Murray Rothbard in his important book, For A New Liberty: A Libertarian Mnaifesto, identified a part of the problem with the utilitarian approach:
The first, and most important [change], occurring in the early to mid-nineteenth century, was the abandonment of the philosophy of natural rights, and its replacement by technocratic utilitarianism. Instead of liberty grounded on the imperative morality of each individual’s right to person and property, that is, instead of liberty being sought primarily on the basis of right and justice, utilitarianism preferred liberty as generally the best way to achieve a vaguely defined general welfare or common good. There were two grave consequences of this shift from natural rights to utilitarianism. First, the purity of the goal, the consistency of the principle, was inevitably shattered. For whereas the natural-rights libertarian seeking morality and justice cleaves militantly to pure principle, the utilitarian only values liberty as an ad hoc expedient. And since expediency can and does shift with the wind, it will become easy for the utilitarian in his cool calculus of cost and benefit to plump for statism in ad hoc case after case, and thus to give principle away. Indeed, this is precisely what happened to the Benthamite utilitarians in England: beginning with ad hoc libertarianism and laissez-faire, they found it ever easier to slide further and further into statism. An example was the drive for an “efficient” and therefore strong civil service and executive power, an efficiency that took precedence, indeed replaced, any concept of justice or right.
As indicated in the above, Rothbard put himself in the natural rights camp. In another important book, Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays, Rothbard writes:
A theory of justice must be arrived at which goes beyond government allocations of property titles, and which can, therefore, serve as a basis for criticizing such allocations. Obviously, in this space I can only outline what I consider to be the correct theory of justice in property rights. This theory has two fundamental premises:

1.the absolute property right of each individual in his own person, his own body; this may be called the right of self-ownership...This principle asserts the absolute right of each man, by virtue of his (or her) being a human being, to "own" his own body; that is, to control that body free of coercive interference. Since the nature of man is such that each individual must use his mind to learn about himself and the world, to select values, and to choose ends and means in order to survive and flourish, the right to self-ownership gives each man the right to perform these vital activities without being hampered and restricted by coercive molestation.
I have a problem with both the utilitarian approach and the natural rights approach. My perspective is set along the lines of the framework of methodological individualism, which is a core principle of the Austrian school of economics. My problem comes about because methodological individualism teaches us that we can not truly know value rankings other than our own. Therefore, there is simply no way to know value rankings across individuals. Thus, we can easily knock the utilitarian  perspective out of the ring. There is simply no way, from the perspective of methodological individualism, to justify a utilitarian approach, since there is no way to truly add up and weigh the costs and benefits of various regulations and laws, across individuals. Who is to say that if even one person objects to a specific regulation or law that the cost to him is for certain less than the benefit to others, if there is simply no way to add up and weigh costs and benefits across individuals?

Utilitarianism is thus a false measure of utility. It implies a type of measurement utility for "society" that can not be measured, and really, in a significant way, doesn't exist.

I, however, have the same problem with natural rights theory. Hans-Hermann Hoppe gets to the core of where natural rights theory leads us, when he writes in the introduction to Rothbard's The Ethics of Liberty:
Libertarianism as developed in The Ethics of Liberty was no more and  no less than a political philosophy. It provided an answer to the question of which actions are lawful and hence may be legitimately threatened with physical violence, and which actions are unlawful and may be so punished. 
But from a methodological individualist perspective, I would argue that no such claim can be justified. Who is the person saying what is legitimate? If one person objects to a specific "legitimacy" how can an outsider say this is wrong, if we recognize the impossibility of measuring value scales across individuals?

Rothbard attempts to get around this problem by stating that "the absolute right of each man, by virtue of his (or her) being a human being, [is] to 'own' his own body." But what does this mean, that it is a "right" to own ones own body? It is certainly not a fact of life that we under all circumstances "own"our body. Do slaves own their bodies? Does a person, who loses life or limb to a knife-wielding crazed man, own his body? And even if one attempts to argue that a person always has use of his mind and thus maintains ownership in this manner, is this really true? What about the person slipped a date rape drug?

The only way to get to the core of natural rights theory, since it is not based on actual facts of how things must be in nature, is to some how claim that "society" recognizes such rights. But this takes us back to the same problem the utilitarians have. Just whose views do we consider a part of "society" and is there any way to take into consideration those in "society" who do not agree with a given proposed "right"? A consistent methodological individualist would have to answer that the question as to whose view should be accepted and whose not, can not be answered for a "society," since there is no way to measure value rankings across individuals.

Thus, this leaves us in an apparent paradox, methodological individualism destroys any call for a libertarian society from a utilitarian perspective and also from a natural rights perspective. Is there any way out?

I believe there is, by being completely methodologically individualistic. The question should not be what is good for society? This question can not be answered. It is as silly as asking, what one flavor ice cream "should" we have for everyone in the world?

The question that can be answered, by each one of us individually, is: What kind of society would I want to live in? If I am looking for a society that can provide me with the greatest freedom, a society that will encourage others to be creative and thus result, for my own benefit, in a society that sees a growing standard of living, then it is a society that is structured along the lines of the libertarian society. The type of society that Mises, Hayek and Rothbard have taught us would bring such a  growing standard of living that most of  us value as individuals. If this is the type of society we want to live in, as individuals, then we can be justified in calling for such a society based on our own individual needs, not based on some supposed good for society. Indeed, this is how most of us act now, including those who want to change the type of society they live in now. Some are attempting to form a new society in a new location that meets their individual needs. Some are attempting to look for a country that is closest to meeting their individual needs. And some are attempting to change the structure of the society in country they currently live in, so that it is more in line with the type of country they want to live in. Others attempt to circumvent restrictive laws and regulations in their own countries.

It is illogical  to attempt these type changes because it will be good for "all of society," though some may frame their advocacy in that fashion and believe that they are correctly doing so. In reality, it only makes sense to attempt such changes, if it is good for the individuals involved. No one spends time advocating for a society they don't want. And thus societies of various sizes and foundational perspectives can emerge, not because everyone in the world has decided in some objective fashion what is a "good" society for everyone in the world, but because as individuals we are all seeking out societies which will be of greatest benefit for us as individuals. And for those who put a high value on freedom and a climbing standard of living, and understand what can bring about such a society, a libertarian society (outlined in the most detail by Rothbard) is the type of society that we desire.

Robert Wenzel is Editor & Publisher of EconomicPolicyJournal.com and author of The Fed Flunks: My Speech at the New York Federal Reserve Bank.


  1. "It is certainly not a fact of life that we under all circumstances "own" our body. Do slaves own their bodies? Does a person, who loses life or limb to a knife-wielding crazed man, own his body?"

    RW is here confusing ownership with control. You may steal my car and be driving it, but I continue to own it. Ownership is a normative term - it is saying who has a right to control, not simply who does control.

    1. First, there is a difference between ownership of non-human things and individuals. All ownership implies acting individuals. Your car example doesn't hold, when discussing individuals.

      Which brings us back to the question who is to determine ownership in your sense, you, "society" etc.? Or is ownership to be viewed from a methodological individualist perspective, that is from perspective of the acting individual, which is about what he has control over, which is the only thing he can claim, in a real world sense, to have ownership over. There is no contradiction between ownership and control when looked at from a methodological individualist perspective, If you control something you own it, if you don't control it, in a real world sense, you don't own it. Although you may want to live in a society where ownership and control of an item are given to you by a society.

  2. This is a good article. I have struggled considering similar issues for myself.

    As a thought exercise, there is a degenerate example of the ideal political system from the perspective of one individual where that individual has recognized authority to make or overrule all decisions. The best I can do as an individual is be the absolute monarch, but this mutually excludes the same from all other individuals; it is the upper bound to the desirability of a political system from the perspective of one individual.

    A lower bound could be similarly constructed; any decisions made by the individual in question can be overruled by any other individual. All possible political systems fall inclusively between these two extremes.

    So why choose a Libertarian society? It negotiates well. To function well the participants in a society must agree who has authority over which decisions. If there are disagreements then physical force may result, which is undesirable. Basing decision making authority on individual property rights is consistent amongst all individuals, and also provides good means for each individual to prosper. Being consistent with prosperity, distribution of authority, and the possibility of functioning without coercion makes it a desirable system.

    But we live in a world where a lot of people enjoy their asymmetrical decision making abilities over others, physical coercion, and artificial boost to personal prosperity generated by the former. And we can't get everyone to agree on the exact terms of "individual private property rights" (i.e. intellectual property) so conflicts still readily devolve into the physical plane. I'm not hopeful for a libertarian society on earth without some sort of biblical plague that kills all individuals with undeserved authority.

  3. All good thoughts. I think though that if you go down this path, there is more to consider. First, there is John Finnis' natural rights theory, which had excited Rothbard at the end of his life. And also Hoppe's work on argumentation ethics, because his basic premise is that people who are against "self-ownership" and similar concepts are engaging in contradictory behavior, and that there is a univeral premise that rational decisions are to be preferred to irrational decisions.

    In my own study I have found you cannot ultimately exclude the moral, try as you might, and I tend to draw from Hoppe and Finnis and some traditional natural rights theory (the Salamancan scholastics are a great source). I presuppose moral understanding as part of human nature, not conclusions but rational ends for which all people act (just not consistently). Finnis calls it practical reason.

    1. Any thoughts on Molyneux's "Universally Preferable Behavior"?

  4. Bob, things that you own can get "out of control" all the time; but that doesn't mean that you don't (still) own them. If I fail to "control" my pollution and (my) particulate matter interferes with your property (your life, your crops), we can't then claim that since I have no control, I have no ownership, and therefore no liability. That would be convenient but wrong. One has an obligation to "control" what one owns; else one ends up violating someone else's property (rights). I don't really see why this old approach to property rights needs fixing or additional justification.

    1. In your definition of ownership, you are already assuming a certain type of society. How do you get to that society is the question that I am discussing. Before we get to that society, the discussion of ownership is not very valuable outside of what you control. Ownership beyond control can only be discussed in terms of a given society.

  5. I'm (mostly) with Bill A on this interesting article: " I'm not hopeful for a libertarian society on earth without some sort of biblical plague..." RW's methodological individualist perspective does not eliminate the paradoxes created by subject value judgments. What does seem necessary is that most people be mostly rational most of the time if a libertarian society has any hope. That doesn't seem to be the case at present. And I don't see it in the future. After the deadliest century in human history due to tragically irrational behavior, we barely put a dent in the population growth rate. Human life has become relatively easy with a minimal amount of rational behavior. There seems no biological incentive for evolution to push us to a higher level of rational behavior. Thus the need for a "plague." Preferably one that targets the predominantly irrational which isn't necessarily the same as "individuals with undeserved authority." Of course "plagues" are notoriously indiscriminant and I myself may be a victim of a plague on irrationality. But I am resolved to let the cards fall where they may in the interest of human rationality.