The Libertarian Bizarro World

Today's post about how libertarians are big fans of initiating force reminds me of a subject near to my heart: libertarian theories of initial property appropriation. The part of a given libertarian theory that deals with initial property appropriation is always the hands-down most exciting part. This is so because it is at that point in the theory, especially for those inclined to talk about aggression and force, that we enter into bizarro world. Up becomes down, down becomes up, and all other relevant words take on their totally opposite meaning.

If you are a libertarian who believes justice requires the following of a certain liberty-respecting process, you have to explain how anything can come to be owned in the first place. That initial move is, by any coherent account, the most violent extinction of personal liberty that there ever can be.

On a fairly traditional account (e.g. Hobbes' account), liberty and freedom are defined as: being free of bodily restraint. Being able to walk about the world freely and without people stopping you and saying you can't go here or there is a fairly appealing notion of liberty. This is what things are like (analytically speaking) prior to ownership. Prior to anyone owning things, you should presumably be free to move about the world however you see fit. And if someone were to come up to you and physically restrain you from moving about the world, you would rightly understand that as a restriction on your liberty.

But physically restraining you from moving about the world is exactly what property ownership does. Whereas before ownership you have full liberty to walk about the earth as you'd like, after ownership, you don't. Should you try, someone (the person claiming ownership of, for instance, a piece of land) will physically restrain your body.

So the thing to look for when reading a libertarian theory of initial appropriation is how they choose to hilariously turn all of this on its head. All of a sudden, once someone unilaterally asserts ownership of something, moving about the world freely somehow gets recategorized as violating other people's liberty. Even worse, moving about the world freely is even recategorized as aggressively attacking someone!

Meanwhile, using violence to physically prevent people from moving about the world (which is what ownership entails) gets recast as the greatest protection of liberty.

Every process-focused libertarian theory of initial property appropriation has to find some way to make this move. It has to redefine liberty--freedom to move about without bodily restraint--as an infringement of liberty. And then it has to redefine attacks on liberty--preventing people from moving about freely--as its greatest defense.

It's truly fascinating to watch how the inversion of meaning unfolds each time. If I didn't know better, I'd almost think that liberty is not what motivates libertarians at all, and that it's all just a vacuous rhetorical game of Capture The Words People Like For Your Side.