Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The neo-feudal Libertarian Party

The Libertarian Party aims to roll back the state to end pensions, public healthcare support, and welfare, amongst other state programs. For the Libertarian Party, all taxes should be ended apart from those used to pay for the police and military.[1] The party’s ideological approach is a distortion of the form of classical liberalism outlined in John Locke’s Two Treatise on Government. In this book, Locke argued for a voluntarily-formed, minimal state, limited only to protecting persons’ ‘life, liberty and property’ – a phrase now used by the so-called Libertarian Party.[2] Locke was writing in late 1600s England, and his primary argument was against the idea that the king owned the country and the persons that lived in it. Rather, people owned themselves and they owned the property which they had laboured on to take out of the God-given ‘common’.

Locke’s second argument was against any type of communist system, which he worried was possibly suggested by the bible. Additionally, common ownership of land by peasants was a prominent feature in England, although it was rapidly being taken over by nobles and large scale sheep farmers. Communism at that time was further associated with Native American societies in which private ownership of nature was rejected. These Native American societies had proved popular with working class English people in the colonies, who often fled to live with the natives, prompting the introduction of a colonial martial law system to stop this mixing.[3]

As opposed to tyrannous monarchism on the one hand, and communism on the other, Locke was arguing for a decentralised peasant-proprietor society in which people owned the land they worked on. He said: ‘The measure of property Nature well set, by the extent of men’s labour and the conveniency of life. No man’s labour could subdue or appropriate all, nor could his enjoyment consume more than a small part’. Whatever the soundness of Locke’s ideas, they became prominent and similar ideas of limiting government to protecting ‘life, liberty and property’ influenced the framers of the US constitution and the French revolutionary constitutions.

However, Locke’s ideas were applied very selectively by the powerful and their apologists, as they are today. Whilst the idea of property was to be upheld as ‘sacred as the laws of God’ (John Adams), Locke’s ideas on acquiring land though labouring on it were largely ignored by the powerful.[4] In England this meant that land which had been taken through violent aristocratic and royal expropriation of the peasants, particularly since the 1400s, was upheld as legitimate. It continued to be upheld as the commons became fully privatised (or ‘enclosed’) by the early 1800s and the legitimacy of this property distribution remains largely unchallenged to this day.

As Karl Marx documented, it is this inequality in land which laid the basis for capitalist development in England. The mass expropriation of the peasants turned the vast majority of the previously self-sufficient population into consumers dependent on remaining property owners (often rich through theft) for food, housing and other necessities. Needing to pay for these necessities meant renting themselves out as wage-labourers in order to raise the money. This situation left capitalist employers with the ability to exploit the dispossessed poor for profit. Workers would only be employed if, in addition to producing enough to pay for their own subsistence and the materials/equipment used in the production process, they also produced enough to pay for a profit for the capitalist employer, who gave them the ‘gift’ of employment.[5] And capitalist employers have a tendency to want as much profit as possible (this is one reason why, despite massive technological progress, working long hours are still so long - it is by getting the most work out of as few employees as possible that the most profits can be made, and capitalists only employ people with profit in mind.) Therefore, the profits that early capitalists made from workers can be considered a subsidy from the state to capitalist employers. Without the violent expropriation of the peasant lands, capitalist employers would not have had their artificially cheap, profit-generating labour. This situation is still in place today.

Albert Jay Nock documented a similar pattern of land concentration in the United States as the economic, military and political elites, including those that framed the constitution such as George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Benjamin Franklin, claimed millions of acres of land as their personal property by legal fiat as the colonists viciously steam-rolled the natives on the way west.[6] Timothy Pickering, Secretary of State under George Washington and John Adams said in 1796 that ‘all I am now worth was gained by speculations in land.’[7] Henry George would in the 1870s document further mass land speculation by people arbitrarily taking huge land titles all the way to the West Coast.[8] Historian Meyer Weinberg has also documented large scale acquisition of land and natural resources by on the West Coast by speculators that did not even see the land, let alone labour there, as John Locke advocated. Weinberg explains that the extreme artificial land concentration in the US laid the basis for a similar wage labour-based capitalism as developed in England.[9]  

Kevin Carson, amongst others, has documented how capitalist states (states that support capitalists) such as that in Britain and the United States, apart from creating and upholding the general pattern of property ownership, have intervened in the economy on behalf of capital in many other ways. This has included, sanctioning slavery and other forms of forced labour, suppression of wage-labour organising, infrastructure support for business, monopoly banking laws, bank bailouts, corporate procurement deals, research and development support, support for oppressive third world regimes, Third World Structural Adjustment Loans, and a host of other state services which have concentrated wealth in the hands of the rich.[10] We therefore see much private property is illegitimate according to Lockean ideals. Legitimate property is to be gained by labour or free exchange. It is not to be gained by state support. Another form of property which is illegitimate according to Lockean ideals is state-owned property (e.g. infrastructure), built by the working class, and funded by taxpayers.

These historical developments have an impact on how Lockean libertarianism should be approached. In Locke’s time his question was how to establish legitimate private property in the context of illegitimate royal and aristocratic estates on the one hand, and much common land on the other. Today the task for consistent Lockeans is understanding what it would look like to establish legitimate private property in the context of widespread illegitimately-gained private property, and much state-owned property. Simply calling for rolling back the state without challenging illegitimate property rights does not achieve this. This would be as if Locke had called for the nobility to renounce their state titles but keep private property claims over vast swathes of land. This would simply be proposing a neo-feudal system of private property that would perhaps be even more despotic than feudalism because people usually have some rights under feudalism, but in a near stateless society nobody would have any rights on someone else’s private property. The so-called Libertarian Party is promoting a similarly despotic, neo-feudal scenario when it calls for the rolling back of the state in United States without challenging illegitimate concentrations of private property. It is difficult to see how this approach has anything to do with promoting liberty.


[1] Libertarian Party 2016 Platform: https://www.lp.org/platform/ (accessed 06 Dec 2017).  
[2] Locke, John, Two Treatise of Government, London, Printed for Thomas Tegg et al, 1823, available at:  http://www.yorku.ca/comninel/courses/3025pdf/Locke.pdf (accessed 06 Dec 2017). Locke uses the phrase ‘life liberty and estates’ p. 159, but ‘estates’ is usually re-phrased as ‘property’. The ‘life, liberty, and property’ phrase is also used in the Libertarian Party’s 2016 Platform.
[3] See Peter Linebaugh, and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Boston, Bean Press, 2000. 
[4] John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams, Little, Boston, Brown and Co., 1856, 10 volumes. Vol. 6, available at: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2104 (accessed: 02 Sep 2017).
[5] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I, Translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, edited by Frederick Engels, Moscow, Progress Publishers, First English edition of 1887, online version at: Marx/Engels Internet Archive, available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/index.htm (accessed 02 Sep 2017).
[6] Albert Jay Nock, Our enemy, The State, Hallbert Pub Corp, 1983, available online at:  https://famguardian.org/Publications/OurEnemyTheState/OurEnemyTheState-byAlbertJKnock.pdf (accessed 03 Sep 2017).
[7] Pickering quoted by Nock, op cit, p. 56.
[8] Henry George, Progress and Poverty: An Inquiry in the Cause of Industrial Depressions and Increase of Want with an Increase of Wealth – The Remedy, New York, Robert Schalkenback Foundation, 1935, available at:  https://mises.org/sites/default/files/Progress%20and%20Poverty_3.pdf (accessed: 02 Sep 2017).
[9] Meyer Weinberg, A Short History of American Capitalism, New History Press, 2003,   http://www.newhistory.org/AmCap.pdf (accessed 06 Dec 2017).
[10] Kevin A. Carson, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Fayetteville, Ark. Anti-copyright 2004, Centre for a Stateless Society [online], available at: https://c4ss.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/10/MPE.pdf (accessed 03 Sep 2017). 

No comments:

Post a Comment