We Hold These Truths To Be Self-Evident (After A Bit Of Inspection)
Freedom In A Nutshell
Let’s now explore the answer to the underlying questions of this book. What is, and how do we achieve, a political environment of 100% freedom, that is, a country of complete liberty?
As you might suspect, the answer to these questions can be revealed in just two words: Privatize everything. Once done, then private interests will interact as each sees fit in the marketplace of goods, services, and ideas. Contracts and voluntary exchanges will become the orders of the day. Since consent between and among individuals is the assumed principle, the freedom to contract or not to contract with others will be respected as one’s inherent right. This follows from the fact that each of us is a sovereign entity. Each of us is capable of making our own decisions and acting on them. This includes exercising the right of self-defense, or bestowing that right to an agent of our choosing.
Liberty-oriented, or libertarian, ideas have existed for many centuries in various forms. Yet they gathered serious momentum, conceptual refinement, and outward expression primarily in the last couple centuries. The notable insights of Adam Smith in economics and John Locke in political philosophy, for instance, led their intellectual successors in the New World to formulate a more mature vision of individual rights. We could say that the idea of individual sovereignty reached budding adolescence with Classical Liberalism.
As mentioned, the framers of the U.S. Constitution applied their understanding of rights only partially to certain types of people and to certain types of actions, based on irrelevant and arbitrary distinctions. Basically, if you weren’t a white male land owner, chances weren’t too high that you’d be respected as an individual with equivalent freedoms. As also mentioned, half the population wasn’t granted the freedom (or rather, the “privilege”) to vote until the turn of the twentieth century. Yet, as we’ve seen, voting is its own form of tyranny. There’s a special irony in choosingone’s rulers, don’t you think?
Women throughout vast reaches of the globe still face oppression and terrible predicaments, as do many other people who are also grouped based on insignificant differences. In America, even though honorable men such as Thomas Paine attempted to enlighten others about some of these inconsistencies, the idea of rights in most people’s minds still had some growing up to do.
In fact, anyone who’s studied the history of individual rights will notice that the idea’s implementation has never reached political maturity. So, the question arises: What would allow individuals everywhere to see rights for what they are, that is, to see them as natural and reason-based rather than government-based? Simply put, self-ownership.
You own yourself. You probably take this for granted, for you see slavery as the evil alternative. Unfortunately, there’s such a thing as partial slavery, which is how humanity lives today—and sadly, it’s somewhat by our own choosing, ignorance, and misunderstanding.
Sure, we may be convinced that we will protect ourselves and our possessions from would-be intruders, but it’s a whole other ball game in the realm of politics. We usually play hardball when it comes to defending our friends and family, and personal possessions, against criminal behavior. But we play the weakest game of whiffle ball when it comes to defending our individual rights as sovereign beings who understand self-ownership against State officials.
If we don’t integrate the idea of absolute ownership of our minds and bodies, we leave ourselves open to major exploitation by illogical political systems and the persons who run them. And for the record, every political system presently enacted by Homo sapiens is illogical—that is, each and every one contradicts the truth of self-ownership.
It turns out that only big-brained hominids can formulate and understand the concept of ownership in the legal sense—and then proceed to ignore it. Chimpanzees and monkeys, for instance, can display systems of reciprocity and can even express emotions of fairness and injustice. But we’ve yet to see any law offices in the jungle or, for that matter, chimps in suits perusing court documents. While other primates do have a sense of various things being favorable or unfavorable to them relative to others, they can’t make the necessary conceptual connections to the idea of self-ownership. Because they aren’t creatures of reason and have little, if any, self-reflective capabilities (as evidenced by behavioral and brain studies), they naturally have little to say on the subject of law and advanced political systems.
Because human beings can reason with the precision of an immense vocabulary of concepts, we are the only known species capable of fully resolving disagreement and conflict through, for instance, mediation and arbitration. We can solve interpersonal problems peaceably by using our rational faculty, rather than the crude methods employed by non-reasoning primates. Even though the highly sexualized Bonobo chimps do have interesting ways to minimize conflict, such dispute resolution is not exactly practical for us. One can imagine commerce and trade ceasing on account of an assortment of particularly unwelcome genital handshakes.
And that’s precisely the point of self-ownership. Because we can reason, we remain keenly aware of how we can choose to deal with each other: either through consent or coercion. Consent is based on the idea that you have total dominion over your own mind and body, and that others have total dominion over their own minds and bodies. We can’t have it any other way without running into a big contradiction. We cannot, with a reasonable mindset, only apply the right to self-ownership to some people but not to others. Since we all possess and use reason and therefore make independent decisions, there’s no logical or practical justification for applying the principle of self-ownership in a discriminatory or inconsistent fashion.
Self-ownership is a universal principle, just like the principle that humans are creatures of reason. You have willful (volitional) control over yourself. Obviously, to claim that human beings don’t have willful control over themselves is to be willfully inconsistent. Thus, you are free from others laying claim to you. Because you own yourself, others by definition may not infringe on your domain.
Of course, we must take into account those unable to perform self-willed actions and even those unable to make choices. As babies, we all emerge from a state of relative helplessness into full-fledged, conceptual, volitional beings. Some people, a small minority in the adult world, remain dependent on other adults for care and safety, like children must rely on their parents. One of the many great things about our species is our ability to acknowledge the rights of those who are less independent and act on our desires to help them. Indeed, none of us would be alive if that weren’t the case.
So, what are the implications of owning yourself? For us to see ourselves as absolute owners, we must begin to apply this principle to any social circumstance—as well as extend it to things outside of ourselves. Though that may sound simple enough, applying the concept to cultural and political institutions that have vast influence over our lives can be demanding.
Ownership in general essentially means rightful possession, either by first use or by consensual transfer of what one possesses to another. Ownership also entails future use and/or disposal of that which is possessed. The idea of ownership stems from the idea of self-possession. In order to further your life and pursue your happiness, that is, in order to function in the world as a reasoning person, you mustclaim things outside yourself (not merely your comb and toothbrush) as your possessions. Even ascetics who harbor disdain for earthly goods must claim the food they chew and swallow to be theirs and not someone else’s. If based on nothing but sustenance alone, ownership is a very good thing.
As mentioned, everyone in a semi-capitalist society such as America seems to take ownership and property for granted. After all, what would all those mortgage payments be good for? And all that stuff in the garage and crammed into closets? Or how about the large (or small) sums of money in the bank? Or that newly purchased office furniture?
We do presume to own things, a lot of very cool and useful things. Private property is in fact the lifeblood of the marketplace, and our lives in that marketplace represent the beating heart of commerce and trade. Capitalism is basically an extension of our reasoning minds.
Staking claim to something can be as trivial as your sunglasses or as profound as a multi-million dollar company and the sizable chunk of real estate it sits on. Without the ability and the right to claim these things as your own—by virtue of first use, possession, or consensual transfer from another—you have scant ability to live and prosper. You also have little ability to create value in these things. What can’t be traded in the marketplace has little, if any, benefit to anyone. What can’t be owned can’t be properly used, improved, or traded in the marketplace.
Moreover, without private property, no prices can be ascribed objectively through the interaction of buyers and sellers coming to mutual agreement, based on their knowledge of the trading environment. Without private property, prices aren’t really possible, no matter how many bureaucrats in their perches of power believe their decrees to be better substitutes. Lack of objectivity in pricing inescapably leads to supply shortages. We should never forget that government rations things by having us all stand in line.
Unfortunately, many things on Earth are presently either unowned or they’re “owned” by various governments. As Ayn Rand wisely noted, “public property” is a contradiction in terms; thus “private property” is actually a redundancy. “Public” supposedly means everyone, even though only a handful of people may have actually consented.
If government prevents private ownership to be ascribed to something, various people will abhor this vacuum. Like a pack of hungry, very impolite wolverines, interest groups will vie for the biggest, juiciest share of the unclaimed bounty. The rest of us will be left standing on the outside looking at the spectacle, wondering how we lost out or how so many people could be so short-sighted.
The only way certain domains—of land, sky, and bodies of water—can remain prey for those who spurn private ownership is if government uses coercion to prevent rightful claims from being made and delineated among owners. When the State denies individuals possession and use of private property, the political process has taken over. What could have been someone’s property is now subject to all sorts of absurdities and dire consequences, one of these being what economists call “common pool” problems. Unclaimed areas usually become a free-for-all for users and abusers, where it’s first come, first served and little accountability concerning the ecological effects.
Case in point: the oceans, which comprise roughly two thirds of the Earth’s surface. They aren’t owned by anyone. So-called territorial waters are merely collectivistic boundaries ascribed by those political officials in charge of enforcing statist dominion. After all, one sure way for those in government to regulate something is to prevent anyone from owning it. Then, what isn’t permitted is forbidden.
As an environmental consequence, most populations of large fish are so loaded with mercury that daily consumption might make you forget your own name, or at least where you put your car keys. Okay, so the effects may not be so dramatic. While there seems to be no convincing evidence for ill effects on most of us, small children and pregnant women are still told by experts to limit their consumption of mercury-laded fish. Nevertheless, the pollutants that accumulate in big fish (being at the top of the aquatic food chain) are indicators of oceanic conditions.
As another indicator, rubber duckies and all kinds of less cute trash wash up on shores of remote islands, carried there by ocean currents. Massive crude oil spills destroy ecosystems for years, even decades. Large portions of coral reefs are dying and turning brittle white, from both natural and human causes. Storm drain, sewage, and run-off waters that are loaded with fertilizers and assorted man-made chemicals generate a proliferation of more primitive organisms such as blue-green algae. These organisms negatively affect the health of other species’ populations and create detrimental toxins along coastal regions. Whole communities of sea creatures are decimated by overfishing. The destructive practice of bottom trawling has ecological effects similar to, or worse than, clear-cutting on land. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the point. Regardless of whether the news media exaggerates (or fantasizes) the global causes and effects, the local effects are noticeable, and they’re harmful—as well as mostly preventable.
Yet the perpetrators act as if they don’t realize the natural consequences of their behavior, as if it’s acceptable, for instance, to dump all sorts of waste into unclaimed waters, not to mention into the air (or into low earth orbit, where it’s becoming a veritable shooting gallery of parts). This is, of course, all thanks to lack of ownership and non-enforcement of private property rights.
Unfortunately, the present legal consequences don’t involve restitution, reparation, and cease and desist orders. Those would be the consequences resulting from private property rights, that is, market-based solutions. We don’t expect our neighbors to empty their trash cans on our front lawns, or into our swimming pools, nor would they dream of such behavior. This is because property owners are normally understanding and respectful of each others’ rights. Similarly, if persons owned the oceans, they wouldn’t tolerate pollution or ecological destruction of their waters. They’d run tight ships, and demand others do likewise, especially if they infringed on or despoiled their property. The same principle applies to all other bodies of water or realms of sky.
Even on assumed privately owned land, government does little to assist enforcement of property rights. For example, owners who’ve been harmed by industrial waste and toxic landfills, or even noticeable freeway pollution, face seemingly endless litigation and court costs.
Of course, expecting the government to come to your rescue and enforce your rights is oftentimes like expecting an orangutan to help you write a legal brief (no offense to orangutans; they can’t help it). Even the highly venerated U.S. Constitution allows government to take private property for “public use” if it serves a so-called compelling public interest. Public interest usually means anyone’s interest except your own. When the State takes property, the owners are supposed to be placated when they’re given “just compensation.” But no compensation can be considered just when the unjust power of Eminent Domain is used. Similarly, property taxes are another major way governmental officials violate your property rights. Having to pay rent to the State for owning something unquestionably mocks the nature of ownership.
To reiterate, the solution to all these issues of unreason and injustice is to ascribe property rights fully to all places, both claimed and unclaimed. Then, we couldachieve some semblance of accountability and legal recourse to property rights-violations. Again, you don’t let people pollute your property, because it’s yourproperty.
The same can’t be said of governmental stewards, the military, various public property exploiters, and some corporate executives who think that the rights of private property owners need not stand in the way of maximizing their own and their shareholders’ wealth.
Yet, you might wonder, if there were no public property or regulated private property (through, for instance, zoning laws), what about issues of untidiness or ugliness that might affect adjacent property values? Few neighbors currently use their own front yards as landfills, not because of coercive laws, but because most people don’t enjoy living in filth and devaluing their own property. Those eccentric owners who have junk cars gathering rust on their own property, for instance, might face disgruntled neighbors (depending on the neighborhood), public shame, or even ostracism. As a result, many of these “collectors” wisely live in less populated areas where there’s less potential for conflicts.
The typical bureaucratic response to this issue, that is, forcing them to do things with their own property, contradicts the nature of property rights. We must appeal to reason, so that respectful relations can be maintained and furthered. Present city ordinances and zoning laws (and regulations galore, as we’ll see in the next chapter) are giant leaps in the opposite direction of individual rights. They’re coercive attempts to control other people’s actions and property, actions and property that have infringed on no one’s rights.
Also, everyone is always free to live in a deed restricted area, in which covenants ensure no eyesores. As many people do today, you can choose to live in a gated community, or in a place governed by a Homeowners Association (though be wary of fascist-like HOA boards and their excessive fees and fines).
Ever wonder why primitive people and those in communal arrangements have experienced so little material progress? Economic progress can only happen if one has something to trade, and that something has to be produced and properly packaged for sale. Now, who’s going to do the work, and who’s going to gain the benefits? Well, in a free society of self-ownership and property, everyone who does the work gains the benefits. Each willing participant trades value for value in win/win, mutually beneficial transactions and interactions. This represents societal cooperation at its best.
Yet some who have nostalgia for primitive cultures, or who believe in the alleged (never exhibited) benefits of Communism, for instance, bristle at the idea of extending private ownership to things beyond personal effects. Sure, they may endorse the idea of having your own clothes. But they prefer, instead, non-ownership or communal ownership of resources and various fruits of your labor. Never mind that historical evidence and present day politics are totally unfavorable to them; Communism has yet to show that it works, let alone that it’s moral. “But, damn, it’s good in theory!” some say. Given our earlier analysis of The Communist Manifesto, one immediately wonders, “good” in what sense?
Non-ownership or communal ownership fosters conflicts over resources. Additionally, the value that could be created in those resources (capital) remains dormant. Aside from the irresolvable disputes generated among individuals and groups, this predicament soon leads to widespread lack of motivation to achieve anything. Communism, in all its variations, is the ultimate demotivator. “What’s the point?” becomes its guiding rhetorical question. People who find ways to “work” the system are typically those who wield the most power via the State, and they get the spoils. The rest merely eke out an existence; they live on the brink of nonexistence.
As we discussed earlier, few people today recommend a full-blown Communist prescription for society. Yet many may advocate a powerful monopolistic organization of individuals to monitor, control, and regulate what should be done with both owned and unowned domains. This is the general idea of government, or the State, in which the underlying principle of Communism holds constant sway.
The extent to which some individuals are denied by other individuals their full right to acquire, use, and/or dispose of property is the extent to which capital accumulation is hindered, productivity is diminished, prices rise, goods and services become more scarce, and opportunities for commerce wane. Private ownership, in contrast, leads directly to value creation, free exchange, productivity, and accountability.
The long, sordid history of thuggery, both personal and political (which ultimately is personal) has continually dismissed the principle of self-ownership—in favor of the contradictory idea that violence is a workable way to deal with others. Statist mentalities reach for threat of force and punishment to affect behavior and solve perceived problems. Terms like the “common good,” “general welfare,” “public interest,” etc., attempt to disarm people who would otherwise have enough good sense to call this what it is—coercion—and deal with it appropriately.
Still some claim, “Why should you be so selfish and greedy and so against this kind of sharing?” Notice that political “sharing” is a euphemism for being forced out of one’s own time, money, and property for the supposed good of others or the group. And the person who demands the sacrifices of others never claims to be selfish himself.
Since you own yourself, naturally you need and ought to benefit and learn from the actions you take and the choices you make. To sacrifice your own interests for the sake of other people’s interests (or vice versa) would be to act in contradiction to your nature. You need to care for yourself before you can care for others, after all. We must be individuals first and (willing) helpers of other individuals second, if we so choose. Thus, we should pay no attention to the intellectuals of all creeds and adornment today who tell us that helping others requires sacrificing our rational self-interest. Nothing is nobler than, or preferable to, living according to your own values, based on your own judgment.
Living a consistently self-interested ethics doesn’t mean being irrationally selfish, that is, being callous or harmful to others, or to yourself for that matter. You ought to embrace your needs and desires to be with and enjoy others and bestow good things on them, as well as your need to be your own best friend. Only if you value yourself and others honestly, according to your enlightened and objective self-interest, will you rid yourself of making sacrifices and the ensuing resentment.
Everything generally boils down to the economics of your own life and desires based on your values, that is, what you have time and energy for, and what you perceive as serving your own life and well-being—in other words, what gives you the most enjoyment, satisfaction, challenge, or comfort. Contrary to statist dogma, a free market, which naturally coincides with our rational self-interest, greatly fosters helping others. Common business activities such as creating jobs, developing and offering products and services that people want, or simply doing volunteer work or making charitable contributions (which depend on wealth and resources created by capitalism’s massive productivity effects), all entail mutual benefit, be it monetary or psychological. Even miserly persons who keep their money under their beds help the economy far more than the State; misers take money out of circulation, instead of inflating, devaluing, and regulating it.
Remember that we have two main choices in dealing with others, and one of them ain’t very nice. We can realize that nothing will get accomplished without creating values in our lives and in the marketplace, and that values can only be properly created through ownership. Or, we can attempt to prevent people from creating values and sidetrack whole societies in the direction of stagnation and destroyed opportunity.
Our planet is one of relative abundance, an abundance that depends not only on our technological know-how, but also on the ethics human society lives by, or suffers and dies by, as the case may be. Given the economic laws that operate no matter what we decide, it’s painfully obvious that those who choose wrongly aren’t very concerned with human health, happiness, and thriving. Rather, they embrace a moral code that sets humanity against its own nature—in order to impose their particular version of “the good” on the rest of us. Of course, the institution of the State enables them to defy the ideas of privatizing everything and honoring owners’ freedom to create and exchange values with others.
Perhaps some are troubled by others doing things as they see fit in society. After all, their choices may run counter to the majority or to those who seek to control them. They may threaten the goals of power-seekers everywhere who want others to do things their way.
Some even contend that if the free market were actually allowed to be free, then the rich would get richer and the poor would get poorer, and those with the most wealth would have the most power to rule over others with ruthless cruelty. How remarkable! This ridiculous depiction of unfettered capitalism actually resembles that of any third-world dictatorship, which is the furthest from unfettered. Not surprisingly, the commonly proposed solution to this alleged scenario (tyranny by the rich and powerful) is brimming with irony: Grant coercive power to an organization that doesn’t depend on profits, but instead expropriates wealth from the willing and the unwilling alike and prohibits and permits things as it sees fit, that is, arbitrarily.
There’s no other way of respectfully dealing with fellow human beings than by respecting their reasoning nature. Many in our society seem to think that force is preferable to persuasion, that if they were in charge, they would make the world a better place. What they’ve failed to realize is that their plans for a better world were doomed from the beginning, on account of using an incorrect means to achieve a better world. To reiterate, the end doesn’t justify the means when the means run counter to individual rights and the principle of self-ownership and by extension private property.
To initiate force against innocent persons who’ve not done as one wants is to reject any sort of consistent form of morality. No matter how much we may wish it weren’t so, we can always disagree with each other. Each of us must be able to make our own choices. No one outside your own experiences is better equipped to make informed decisions for you. Moreover, for others to intervene in such an affair is to contradict human functioning—choosing to prohibit choice.
One big difference between a central planning statist and the individual decision maker, aside from their codes of morality, is the vast gulf between their respective levels of available, local knowledge. The statist planner/regulator in any guise (town, city, county, state, or D.C.) only has guesses about how individuals would make choices in the marketplace. Most of the time we can’t even guess what sort of choices our friends are going to make. So, there’s less than a snowball’s chance on Mercury that central planning bureaucrats or policy wonks can make optimal decisions for each and every person in the particular way that each person knows best.
This is reflected in the joke about two Communist planners. They were scheming about how to effectively control aspects of industry and trade and allocate labor and resources accordingly. In the course of their conversation about how to implement this special form of insanity across the globe, one said, “But of course, we’ll have to leave one country alone, let it remain capitalist.” “Why in the world would we want to do that?” asked the other. “Because we must have a way to determine what our prices are going to be!”
Again, prices are set by the interaction of buyers and sellers in the marketplace. The law of supply and demand is something that can’t be messed with—not with impunity. The invisible hand of the market, as Adam Smith outlined a few centuries ago, is a hand that needs no master. This is because, on the grand and complex scale of entire economies filled with extensive divisions of labor, intricate specializations, and innumerable consumer interests and preferences, no substitute exists for personal decision making. No one can think and act for you, either as a producer or as a consumer—unless you prescribe specific courses of action through consensual contract. Even such a contract with agents who act on your behalf requires you to make individual choices based on your personal context that no one else can properly ascertain.
Living in the marketplace as autonomous decision makers, no matter how extensive or intimate our social networks may be, is the only way we can and will become fully responsible and independent adults. As creatures of reason, being responsible and independent—psychologically, intellectually, and financially—are very healthy things. Actually, they’re indispensable. To live otherwise is akin to a bird trying to fly without extending its wings.
Let’s now look at the general organization of laws in America that attempt to deny us the responsibility and independence of adulthood. Where do you suppose they’re leading us? Well, it’s definitely not into the same valley as the land of milk and honey. More like Mordor with its assortment of Ringwraiths.