This article was published in the Spring 1998 issue of Formulations
by theFree Nation Foundation
A Theory for Libertarianism
by Richard O. Hammer
(to table of contents of FNF archives) (to start of essay)
(to outline) (to top of page)
We libertarians find ourselves in agreement on many issues in public policy. We share an attitude. In almost every case we would shrink the state rather than expand it. But we divide when we are asked to explain why we would do this. We do not share a theory which explains our positions.1
During the past few years I have been piecing together a theory which seems, to me, to explain libertarian positions. I have sketched this several times in my FNF writings.2 But recently, prompted by Bobby Emory who has said we need a "unified field theory" of libertarianism, I have worked more on it, and packed it into one simple "primary statement" which you will see below.
After telling the primary statement, I give extended definitions of the terms used—since the statement must be understood as limited by those definitions. In the remaining discussion I give two additional statements, which follow from the primary statement. I hope readers will find these either entertaining or useful.
In this article I will tell the theory as I now see it. But I am not satisfied that I have completed this. So I will welcome receiving comments from any readers who have criticism or help.
Assuming my readers to be well-read libertarians, you might see nothing new here, in either my statements or elaborations. You may see that I do little more than say, in a different way perhaps, what we libertarians typically believe: that free markets work. Yet I continue thinking that I have failed as yet to communicate something important; I believe that we libertarians have a power which most of us have not yet perceived. I hope that the theory, as I argue it here, will help illuminate that power. In the concluding section "We Can Use This" I develop this point further.
(to outline) (to top of page)
Every human need can find
satisfactory fulfillment through voluntary means.
We often find that statements such as this, when boiled down to just a few words, cannot be understood until they have been explained. So I will elaborate upon the narrower-than-usual meanings which I intend for the terms "need" and "satisfactory fulfillment." My usage here differs somewhat from common usage, and differs significantly from what will be assumed by non-libertarians. But since I assume my readers to be favorably predisposed, I expect you will see that the primary statement follows from the definitions, and demands hardly any additional reasoning for its proof.
human need: anything needed or desired by an individual human. It would be impossible to give a complete list of needs; there are too many. But, for starters, needs include such things as: safety, food, clothing, shelter, love, education.
Notice that I include protection, from aggression or fraud, among needs. As such these needs include negative rights.
But, for this theory, I must exclude two meanings of the word "need" which are in common usage. First, I exclude any notion of a collective need. If, for example, most people in a city need food, then I would not say "the city needs food."
Second, I exclude projection, in which one person purports to speak for another. For instance, George might say to Sally, "You need to lose weight." Or he might say of the people in Calcutta, "They need to learn hygiene." But if Sally, as evidenced by the choices which she makes, shows no evidence that she feels the "need" mentioned by George, then I would exclude George's usage. Likewise with the people in Calcutta.
Now in my theory there is a way for George to express his feelings, but he must own his feelings and not project them onto others. He might say, "Sally, I need you to lose weight." Or he might say, "I need to feel good about myself, and I would feel good about myself if I could somehow participate in encouraging the people of Calcutta to practice more hygiene, and thereby live longer and healthier lives."
satisfactory fulfillment: the best result that can be expected, given current constraints.
voluntary means: any act which does not, or set of acts which do not, initiate use of coercion. We libertarians seem to have an instinctive grasp of this meaning, so there is no need to belabor it.
Recall the reply which we libertarians often give to anyone who, hoping to rectify discrimination in employment, argues for state-forced affirmative action. We say that if discrimination exists then that discrimination creates an opportunity for an entrepreneur. If some employers are prejudiced, and if thereby some adequately-qualified minority workers are denied employment at wages which are enjoyed by majority workers, then this describes a business opportunity.
An entrepreneur could take customers away from the prejudiced employers by hiring minority workers, at the lower rates for which they can be hired, and offering, to those customers of the prejudiced employers, the same service for a lower price. If free markets are allowed thus to work, the prejudiced employers will soon lose customers; the majority workers who enjoyed high wages will soon be out of work; and the now-in-demand minority workers will soon be able to bargain for higher wages.
And, as we libertarians must sometimes point out to statists, wherever unfair discrimination in employment has existed for any length of time, almost certainly this has been caused by something which the state has done in the past; wherever unfair discrimination persists the majority, having the power of the state in their hands, have almost certainly done something with that power to give themselves an advantage.
The solution, which we libertarians advocate to this sort of state-powered discrimination, is not to create a new abuse-inviting apparatus of state power, in affirmative action, but to find and repeal the prior acts of state which sustained the discrimination in the first place. Arguing thus, we libertarians demonstrate that we believe that the need for fair compensation in employment can be fulfilled by free markets (by voluntary means).
Extension and Limitation
Assuming that you accept this line of reasoning, I hope that you will join me in seeing that it can be generalized: a parallel line of reasoning can be applied to every other human need, including for instance the needs for food, safety, law, and tooth brushes. For every human need, which will cause statists to call for an act of state, we libertarians can know that the very existence of the need describes an opportunity for an entrepreneur.
But notice that this reasoning does not apply to two classes of needs, which we generally do not expect to be fulfilled anyhow. First, it does not apply to trifling needs. Sometimes, for instance, my nose itches. But if even I am too lazy to lift my hand to scratch it, probably I cannot expect the free market to help me either. And second, it does not apply to those needs, such as a cure for cancer, for which no practical means to fulfill the needs exist at present.
Furthermore, notice that we would not claim that every need is fulfilled perfectly, by voluntary means, but only that it can be fulfilled satisfactorily. Indeed it is the small and continuously appearing imperfections which drive entrepreneurs to provide the solution in which we trust.
Here I need to add just a few points. Notice that impetus to act, to fulfill any need, falls to the individual who feels that need. This follows from the definitions. Recall that this does not mean "rugged individualism," but includes all cases of compassion, charity, obligation, and contract, in which individuals can be expected to feel that they need to do things for the good of others.
This is the engine that we can trust to drive the sort of society in which I would like to live. People experience their own needs, and act to satisfy their own needs, either directly or cooperatively, through any channels of trade which might exist. Every human need will find satisfactory fulfillment through voluntary means. We do not need to turn to collective coercion, for anything.
(to outline) (to top of page)
Every regular evil is caused
by the state.
This, if you can accept one more of my definitions, you will see follows directly from the primary statement.
regular evil: a human need which is not satisfactorily fulfilled through voluntary means. An evil, to be included in my meaning here of "regular evil" must be eradicable by practical methods. This means that the evil must be persistent or predictable (so that entrepreneurs could plan to profit by fulfilling the need implied by the evil). It also means the evil must be non-trivial (big enough to induce someone to act).
As such, regular evils include the obvious: war, genocide, unfair discrimination, urban blight, gang warfare. But regular evils also include some not-so-obvious: slavery (held in place by the police power of the state, which has fallen into the service of slave-owning businesses), famine (of the only sort that exists now on Earth, where some government has blocked the flow of food from those billions of Earth's citizens who hunger to feed the hungry), pollution (wherever it is truly noxious), persistent poverty.3
I regularly refer to the principles expressed by these statements, especially when I find myself challenged with a new demand that government must do this or that. If a statist asserts that a need is going unmet, first I examine the need. Does it satisfy my definition of need? Or is it really a deception, an agenda which person A has for person B? If it does pass my test, as a real need, then I ask why entrepreneurs are not moving to fill this need.
In some cases I find it helpful to imagine myself to be that entrepreneur. I ask, if I attempted to start that business, what would I encounter? Regularly, in every case, I can find something government has done to block or impede the formation of this business.
(to outline) (to top of page)
Every call for an act of state
—assuming it responds to a human need not satisfactorily fulfilled by voluntary means—
stands upon a prior act of state.
Of the many conclusions which can follow from the above, here is a statement that, although outside FNF's usual scope, may be useful to readers who participate in public-policy debate within their majority-rule democracy:
This follows from the primary statement, in that only an act of state could prevent voluntary means from satisfactorily fulfilling a human need.
With this understanding I would suggest the following way to respond to any call for an act of state:
first, acknowledge the human need not satisfactorily fulfilled which has led to the call;
second, find the most obvious act of state which blocks fulfillment of this need by voluntary means;
third, call for repeal of that act.
You probably will not get far, not in the process of public policy within a majority-rule democracy.4 But, after you test the hardness of this brick wall with your head, I hope you will feel better about renewing your support for FNF.
We Can Use This
This theory, I contend, gives us libertarians a tool. Let me give an analogy:
Consider the condition of human tribes before they discovered how to use fire. While they no doubt feared fire, they may also have appreciated it. At least they may have enjoyed the barbecued flavor given to game caught in a fire. So sometimes these early humans may have said, "Gee. Wouldn't it be nice if another fire comes this way."
But if I were there I would have been saying, "Look, we do not need to wait for fire. We can make it."
I have the impression that many people who want more liberty talk about liberty as something that happens to them. Like the weather, they just hope it will be good, and wring their hands in despair when it is bad. While I think this attitude is perfectly reasonable, given history to date, I think we stand now at a threshold.
It is possible, I contend, for us who want liberty to create a new nation, with substantially more freedoms than now exist in any present nation. If we believe that liberty works, we do not need to wait till we have convinced 50% of our neighbors to believe it too. We can leave our neighbors, along with their beliefs, in peace, and proceed directly to our goal.
Lastly, note that the primary statement, given here, is positive. Most descriptions of libertarian philosophy are negative, in that they tell what we insist other people must not do. Most descriptions of libertarian philosophy describe a pestilence which we wish would go away. But, I believe, the primary statement describes a tool, capable of fighting pestilence, which lies in our hands. D
(to outline) (to top of page)
1 John Gray corroborates this view that we lack a theory. In the preface to his Liberalisms: Essays in Political Philosophy (Routledge, 1989), he says, "The upshot of the arguments developed in these essays is that the political morality that is constitutive of liberalism cannot be given any statement that is determinate or coherent and it has no claim on reason."
2 For instance, see: FNF Working Paper "Win-Win Society Is Possible," 1994 (this paper can be found online at the FNF web site); "Might Makes Right: An Observation and a Tool," Formulations, Vol. III, No. 1 (Autumn 1995); and "Nineteen Propositions About Property," in this issue.
3 These examples, of evils which can be blamed upon the state, I draw from a longer list, of about 130 evils, which I have compiled in the draft of a book tentatively titled Gifts From Government.
4 I believe this follows from Public Choice economics. See, for instance: James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, 1965.
Note: I owe thanks to Roy Halliday and Gordon Diem who, by commenting upon drafts, have improved this paper.
(to table of contents of FNF archives) (to outline) (to top of page)