Freedom vs free markets

Any individual freedoms – to trade freely, even to own guns – are in principle libertarian. But I think we all recognise that freedom is not so simple.

If someone beats me up and takes all my stuff, that’s an expression of their freedom; but I don’t think anyone who doesn’t live in a bunker full of canned beans would regard that as a legitimate one. We temper our freedoms with ideas of fairness, decent behaviour, etc..This is the fundamental tension in any society, and there, of course, is where it gets complicated.

Is it decent or fair to pay someone $2 an hour when you could afford to pay ten, just because they have no other option? Free-marketeers say yes. Is it fair to form a union to force the employer to pay $10? Free-marketeers say no, but why not? Isn’t the union part of the market? Didn’t they form voluntarily to pursue their legitimate interests?

A contradictory element of free-market libertarianism is that it still relies on the state to enforce private property and the financial system¹, while relieving it of all other social responsibilities. Isn’t that kind of selective? If you can use state force to get what you want, why can’t I?

And the gun thing, oh, the gun thing…yes, it’s a freedom, but why so much emphasis on that one? Why not the freedom to walk around with a wild cheetah on a leash? Or the freedom to take a backpack full of gelignite onto a plane? Are you seriously considering an armed revolution anytime soon? Because if not, I’d rather live in a world where I’m free to disagree with you while you’re drunk.

Unless you’re Grizzly Adams, human beings live in societies, and consequently all liberty exists in the context of a society. There will always be a tension between the community and the individual, and through that tension, compromises are made that maximise freedom. This may take the form of market regulation or the banning of guns or suing for libel if that community freely so decides. It is not for anyone to prescribe otherwise – that’s the difference between true liberty and ideology.

To borrow an analogy employed by Tolstoy in War and Peace, an arm floating in space is useless – it must be attached by a shoulder to a body in order to be able move – but paradoxically, the presence of the shoulder and the body necessarily restricts the range of its movement.

So no, I don’t accept that free markets or gun rights are necessarily implied by libertarian ideas², except in their most naively individualist form.


1. Libertarians point out the inadequacy of the “social contract” model of government legitimacy, while statists argue that the same inadequacy applies to the notion of private property,

If this is intended as a reductio ad absurdum, it backfires, creating an argument against both the statist view and the proprietarian libertarian view.

While ownership of personal possessions and the rights to occupy and cultivate land are derivable from natural law or natural justice, other forms of private property are at odds with this notion. For example, ownership of the actual land itself (it was always there!), of abstract financial instruments like currency or futures or mortgages, of massive entities whose value is orders of magnitude greater than could conceivably be created by one’s own labour, by inheritance, and so on.

These forms of property are enjoyed by very few, and with a few unedifying exceptions (say, criminal warlords) are legitimised by state power.This is precisely because they do not arise naturally. They just don’t sit well with libertarian ideals.

While statists are more consistent in this regard, their “social contract” hasn’t actually been signed by anyone.

2. You may already know that the term “libertarian” was first used in 1857 by French anarcho-communist Joseph Déjacque, and he most certainly did not include in its ambit the free market in the sense conservative economists use it.

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