Fudge Terms in the Libertarian Sphere – Opting Out

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The libertarian movement isn’t immune to the use of terms that obfuscate rather than inform

Knowledge

Legendary Austrian economist F.A. Hayek was laser focused on this word “knowledge.” In fact, his argument against socialism is termed “The Knowledge Problem”, summarizing what he believes is the fundamental argument against socialism: our lack of knowledge. The reason why central planners can’t plan is because the knowledge they need to make decisions is dispersed amongst the countless individual decision-makers who make up society.

The “knowledge” or the “fallibility problem” is also used as the ultimate foundation for liberty. We simply don’t know enough as a species to trust any one planner to run other people’s lives. Better to trust in the spontaneous order that emerges from decentralized individual decisions, simply because of our own fallibility. The wisdom in these institutions is not something that can yet be understood by the human mind.

Thus what was sounds like a good economic argument against socialism becomes the problematic reasoning for the free society, if that’s all you’ve got. The implication then is that if it were possible in the future for market knowledge to be accurately aggregated and quantified, through advances in technology perhaps, then there would be no need for freedom. This further implies that the more knowledge that is gained by humanity on aggregate, the less persuasive the argument for individual liberty is.

Then one ponders, and suddenly “knowledge” doesn’t seem like the best word even in the purely economic sense. Why use such an ambiguous term? For me, Hayek’s main influence in the Austrian sphere, Ludwig von Mises, and his wording seems more precise: Mises focused on the price system. It is market prices that give individual decision-makers the proper knowledge to allocate resources efficiently.

Coercion

I’m not picking on Hayek, I promise, but he is prone to being imprecise with terms.

Murray Rothbard, in his letters to the Volker Fund, gave a scathing review of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, which for Rothbard was a terrible attempt at providing a philosophical justification for the free society.

“[Hayek] fails badly in defining ‘coercion.’ For Hayek, ‘coercion’ is defined as arbitrary, specifically harmful acts; the term is thus used much more broadly and yet more narrowly than its proper definition: ‘the use of violence.’ Hence, Hayek can say that for a factory to fire a worker in a place where unemployment is heavy—or to threaten to fire him—is an act of ‘coercion,’ on the same level as actual acts of violence.”

Excerpt from Roberta A. Modugno’s Rothbard vs The Philosophers

The question that comes to mind is, if we are to insist on Hayek’s broad definition of “coercion” that includes non-violent acts, then what word should we use to describe the use or threat of initiatory violence?

Private property

Is “private property rights” even a useful term? It necessarily connotes a separation between an individual owning a piece of property (private) or a group of people, or society (public).

But it seems to me that the libertarian theory of property rights is not about individual or collective ownership (no libertarian opposes groups of people sharing ownership of property) but the proper process of acquiring property.

What justifies one owning property? Whether they’ve homesteaded it – that they were the first user of the resource – or received it through voluntary transfer. The opposite of that would be if they had stolen it.

Also, in a significant way, “private” property is “public” in the sense that if the right of that owner is to be respected by others, then the owner’s claim must be stated publicly. If not, then “trespassers” could reasonably excuse themselves by claiming that they were not aware that anybody owned it.

You can’t have any mutually established set of property rights without some kind of public knowledge. And in a very real sense, it’s something we all participate in, in a kind of Hayekian emergent way.

I don’t have an alternative term, except maybe “justified property,” which might be question-begging. I’m still not totally happy with “private property” because all the trouble it causes.

Isolationist

“Isolationist” has become a propaganda term. In the way the mainstream drones couch it, it sounds like non-interventionists, who are merely defined by their opposition to foreign military intervention, are anti-social. Neocons will couch their criticism in terms of “refusing to engage on the world stage,” or “giving up our global role,” as if our main gripe with the wars in the Middle East is that they involve human interaction, having to talk to people, help them, etc. Us guys are just loner isolationists.

By comparison, being dismissed as hippy peaceniks threading flowers into gun barrels is far more flattering, and more accurate. Simply, non-interventionists in the Ron Paul vein don’t like war, which is aggressive violence on a colossal scale. We think it’s expensive, destructive, and wrong.

Obviously, having this view doesn’t preclude us from talking with other nations, cooperating and trading with them. In fact, engaging in endless war makes it more difficult for us to do that.

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.

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