Property and freedom

Frank van Dun has an interesting article on “hostile encirclement” in a libertarian world. His thesis is: when freedom and property rights conflict, the latter should give way to the former.

There may be cases where there is a conflict between claims on behalf of one person’s freedom and claims on behalf of another person’s private property. In such cases, the question arises, which claims should prevail? Unquestionably, the libertarian answer should be freedom before property. Unfortunately, many libertarians are reluctant to give up the conception of “freedom as property” that (1) serves them so well in their critiques of interventionism and collectivism and (2) underpins their notion that the law of a libertarian order is merely the rigorous application of the so-called nonaggression principle.

I believe that his argument is flawed and that it is based on a mistaken view of freedom. The principled case for a libertarian polity—I am not interested in any other—cannot rest on a hierarchical notion of freedom, like the egalitarian ideology of the communists—only when everyone is provided with a bicycle will someone else be allowed to make use of a car. If freedom, man’s right to his life, follows from man’s nature, the right to property necessarily follows from such a right to life. The right to property is not a gift, or an unimportant add-on, but a necessity. What you have in the end is one complete all-or-nothing package, not a bundle of rights from which specific rights can be removed under certain circumstances, but not under others. In Rand’s words, “the right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation.” Further, contradictions cannot exist in a sane world. Admitting that one faces a contradiction is admitting to a mistake in the thinking process. At least that’s how things work in Aristotle’s world; Hegel lives in a universe of his own making. Therefore, if one man’s freedom comes into conflict with another man’s right to his property, it can only be because one of them is, or both of them are, mistaken.

Now, consider Dun’s case of “hostile encirclement.” What would A do if B and his gang control all the property around, above and below him. Dun writes-

Two logical points should be stressed here. The first is that if throwing an innocent person in a cell deprives him of his freedom then so does building a cell around him even on those occasions when one succeeds in doing so without touching him or his property.

A pragmatist argument—if two courses of action produce the same result, then they are the same. So, throwing someone in jail is similar to buying property around him and refusing him the right of way. But the difference should be clear to any non-pragmatist. That one action involves aggression, the other doesn’t.

From the idea that freedom is a “supreme libertarian value,” Dun concludes that judges and law enforcement agencies in a libertarian world should force B to provide a right-of-way. Actually, every property owner should be forced to provide such right-of-way so that A (and others like him) is not isolated.

He also writes-

If, as many libertarians believe, freedom is a natural right then we should be clear about whether it entitles one to destroy the freedom of others if only in ways that do not involve direct interference with their property. If it does then freedom can hardly count as a fundamental value in the sense of political philosophy; if it does not then the nonaggression principle can hardly count as the basic principle of libertarian law. Either way, there seems to be something wrong with equating libertarian law with the rigorous application of the nonaggression principle.

That should not come as a surprise. The principle does not refer to freedom, only to property; it would be adequate as the axiomatic law of freedom only if freedom and property were synonymous — but they are not. To paraphrase Anthony de Jasay, we do not need a theory of “freedom as private property” any more than we need any other theory of “freedom as something else.”

thereby creating a concept of freedom which isn’t anchored to anything and which can be used to chop away at the roots of the freedom of everyone.

This is what I ask. Why should the exception be limited to roads? What if B & Co. corner the market in food grains on the whole planet? Surely A and everyone else cannot live without food; a dead man is not free. The food grains are B’s property. But since A’s “freedom” comes before B’s “freedom as something else,” B should be forced to empty his granaries till the situation improves. If this is an outlandish scenario, consider another one, something similar to what Mukul Sharma used a couple of weeks back. B is an inventor who has invented a vaccine for a killer disease. But he refuses to disclose the formula. Is A’s freedom greater than B’s right to keep the formula a secret? Would the answer be different if the formula was written on a piece of paper and locked in B’s safe instead of B’s mind?

A political philosophy which doesn’t divorce itself from morality will always say no, that A has no right to claim that B is obliged to do something to help him. Its by carving out such exceptions that the foundations of politics are weakened. The disaster that is the modern day United States is proof of that.

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