Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment

Imagine an anarcho-capitalist enclave in which membership and all interpersonal transactions are voluntary. (Assume, for the sake of simplicity, that the enclave is populated only by sane adults.) Disputes that cannot be resolved by the parties are resolved through arbitration, to which all members of the enclave subscribe as a condition of membership. As a further condition of membership, contractual obligations and adherence to the decisions of arbitrators are enforced by a  private agent, which is appointed for the sole purpose of such enforcement by the unanimous consent of the members of the enclave. In the alternative, individuals or groups of individuals would hire their own private agents to negotiate disputes. (That the agent or agents might assume state-like power or act like warlords are possibilities too realistic to be admitted by anarcho-capitalists.)

The libertarian spirit which reigns in this Anarcho-topia implies, among other things, absolute freedom of speech. There wouldn’t be laws against aggressive speech — slander, libel, harassment, and threats, for example. In fact, there wouldn’t be laws against (or about) anything because laws arbitrarily constrain the voluntary actions of consenting parties. In the absence of laws, aggrieved parties would seek relief and/or restitution through arbitration. At the direction of an arbitrator, an offending party would be expected to grant relief and/or restitution voluntarily. Failure to do so would be grounds for action by the enforcement agency, which has every person’s prior consent to act. Arbitration and enforcement would yield precedents, of course, but precedents would be informational rather than binding.

Now, suppose that a persuasive orator — one who commits no slander, harasses no one, and threatens no one — is able to convince a majority of the enclave’s denizens that the older members of the enclave should be supported by the younger members, all of whom must “contribute” to the support of the elders, like it or not. It’s true that the orator is proposing a course of action that is tantamount to aggression. But it’s entirely possible that an arbitrator would allow speech that isn’t directly aggressive, on the ground that to do so might set a dangerous, anti-libertarian precedent.

Suppose further that the majority forthwith hires a powerful agent — one even more powerful than the one designated as the enforcer of arbitration decisions — to force everyone to “contribute” to the support of elders. (Such an outcome, which effectively destroys liberty in Anarcho-topia, is roughly parallel to the demise of America’s relatively libertarian economic order because of the anti-constitutional regulatory and welfare schemes that have been enacted since the onset of the Progressive Era.)

Perhaps, in hindsight,  Anarcho-topians should have adopted and enforced a restraint on liberty for the sake of preserving it. The restraint might have been that no one could advocate or conspire in the coercion of the populace for any purpose other than the defense of Anarcho-topians.

Why an exception for defense? Imagine the long-term consequences for the enclave if it were to dither as a marauding band approached, or if too few members of the society were to volunteer the resources needed to defeat the marauding band. What’s the good of a commitment to liberty if it leads to the demise of liberty?

Here, then, is the paradox for libertarians: Some aspects of liberty must be circumscribed in order to preserve most aspects of liberty. As always, the question is where to draw the line.

Related reading: As I was polishing this post, which is a remake of “A Paradox for Libertarians” (2005), I happened upon “Libertarianism and Asteroid Defense,” by Ilya Somin at The Volokh Conspiracy. Somin’s post hits the same theme: the foolishness of rights-absolutism.

Related posts:
On Liberty
Parsing Political Philosophy
First Principles
The State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come
I Want My Country Back

The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
A Conversation with Uncle Sam
Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power?
Does Congress Have the Power to Regulate Inactivity?
Is the Constitution True?
Is the Constitution True? An Addendum

The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Law and Liberty
The Devolution of American Politics from Wisdom to Opportunism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Line-Drawing and Liberty
The Divine Right of the Majority

Cato’s Usual Casuistry on Matters of War and Peace
The Media, the Left, and War
The “Predator War” and Self-Defense
The National Psyche and Foreign Wars
Delusions of Preparedness
A Moralist’s Moral Blindness
The Folly of Pacifism

Economic Growth since WWII
The Price of Government
The Commandeered Economy
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth