Anarchistic Balderdash

Writing at Ludwig von Mises Institute, F.A. Harper says:

Liberty is the absence of coercion of a human being by any other human being; it is a condition where the person may do whatever he desires, according to his wisdom and conscience.

This means that to have liberty one must be free without qualification or modification, so far as his social relationships are concerned. Nature will still impose its restrictions on him, of course; but his fellow men shall impose none.

In order to bring this definition more clearly into focus, consider as an alternative a definition which seems to be the only possible one to be selected in its stead:

Liberty is a condition where the person must do whatever another person desires that he shall do, according to the other person’s wisdom and conscience.

This is the sole alternative, because for any one act under consideration there are only two possibilities:

  1. you determine what you shall do, or
  2. you are prohibited from determining what you shall do.

The last of these two possibilities means that some other person or persons will decide what you shall do, and force you to do it. That seems to be a definition of slavery rather than of liberty, and therefore I must reject it. And since there is no other alternative — since a person must act voluntarily by his own wisdom and conscience or involuntarily according to the mandate of another person — the first definition seems to me to be the only tenable one.

Harper’s proposed definition fails a simple test of logic. Imagine a population of three entities: A, B, and C. (Three is a more problematic number than two, as I’ll show.) Suppose that A, B, and C covet each other’s possessions and that each might, as a result, murder the others to gain their possessions. After all, Harper’s definition of liberty would allow them to do just that. Thus the logical fallacy in Harper’s definition:

  • If A kills B, B is no longer able to do as he wishes. Similarly with B and C, C and A, or any combination of two against one or one against two.
  • It follows that neither A, nor B, nor C enjoys liberty. Why? Because, even though each is free to do as he wishes without regard for the others, that very freedom stands to deprive each of his life.
  • Without life, liberty — the freedom to do entirely as one wishes (in Harper’s definition) — is a nullity.

What about Harper’s “sole alternative,” which is “where the person must do whatever another person desires that he shall do”? Harper, in his zeal to propound anarchy, omits the real alternative, the one that flows from my negation of Harper’s definition of liberty:

  • A, B, and C — knowing that it is dangerous to each of them to allow the others to live by Harper’s definition of liberty — agree that (among other things) murder is a forbidden activity, and that one may not murder another except in self-defense. (They further agree as to the ways and means of enforcing their prohibition of murder, of course.)
  • That is liberty, for it enables each of them to live and, therefore, to “pursue happiness” within their respective means.

What if A and B agree, honorably, not to kill each other, whereas C “leaves his options open”? It then behooves A and B to reach a further agreement, which is that they will defend each other against C. (This is analogous to the decision of the original States to adopt the Constitution because it bound each of them to provide men, matériel, and money for the defense of all of them.) A and B therefore agree to live in liberty (the liberty of self-restraint and mutual defense), whereas C stands outside that agreement. He has forfeited the liberty of self-restraint and mutual self-defense. How so? A and B, knowing that C has “left his options open,” might honorably kill or imprison C when they have good reason to believe that C is planning to kill them or acquire the means to kill them.

It boils down to this: Liberty requires mutual restraint, tacitly or explicitly agreed, which is based on self-interest. Liberty is not a condition in which one may “do whatever he desires, according to his wisdom and conscience.” Nor is liberty a condition in which a “person must do whatever another person desires that he shall do, according to the other person’s wisdom and conscience.” It is, rather, a condition in which each person adheres to agreed rules of behavior, rules that serve his interest as well as the interests of others.

Now, Harper might say that the liberty of mutual restraint is consistent with his statement that

[l]iberty as I have defined it does not preclude as guidance for one’s acts any form or degree of advice and influence, if voluntarily accepted, which, originates elsewhere than within himself. This guidance might be religious influences, evidence from historical records, scientific knowledge, the advice of another person, or even processes of mental telepathy or clairvoyance or insight from mystical origins, to whatever extent these may occur. If willingly accepted, the act resulting from such influences is as much an act of liberty as would be any other.

But I am talking about more than “advice and influence…voluntarily accepted” as “guidance for one’s acts.” I am talking about liberty as the result of mutual restraint (tacit or explicit). Such restraint is no more voluntary than, say, eating; it is necessary to the preservation of life and, therefore, of liberty. (You may choose to fast or to kill, but you may do neither with impunity, for very long.) of In a society of liberty, those who do not abide by the edict of mutual restraint stand to forfeit their own liberty.

Related posts:
The Meaning of Liberty
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part I
Libertarianism and Preemptive War: Part II

Related reading: Arnold Kling, writing at EconLog about this exchange at Cato Unbound.