Clearly, for some people — perhaps for a growing portion of libertarians as new, younger people enter the movement — libertarianism is a messy enough bundle of things, from personal autonomy to constitutionalism to national sovereignty, that it’s almost surprising libertarians’ answers to moral and policy questions are as consistent as they are.
And, to be sure, diverse rhetorical modes have long been there in the movement — sometimes individualistic, sometimes conservative, sometimes revolutionary, sometimes bean-counting, sometimes coo-coo-liberationist — but I think it’s always been clear to the deepest and most careful thinkers in the movement, from Robert Nozick to Milton Friedman to Murray Rothbard, that property rights has to be the real basis, not because, say, we arbitrarily prefer shopping to meditation or charity but because all the other candidates for a foundation are so subjective that they simply don’t lead in a predictable way to the sorts of answers to moral and policy questions that the movement keeps generating.
I can tell you that burglary, taxation, and contract fraud all involve someone taking someone else’s property without permission, and it’s not that great a logical leap (however debatable a move one might think it in utilitarian terms) from there to saying all government regulation is an intrusion, etc. By contrast, all the fuzzier candidates for underlying principles, such as “autonomy” or “individualism,” seem to lead most people to moral conclusions as diverse and strange as the dreams of poets. Does property enhance autonomy? OK, I guess. Does an NEA grant also enhance autonomy? Maybe sometimes, I don’t know.
I can tell you with confidence that the money for it was taken from taxpayers threatened with jail time, though. The property violation is much easier to spot than the vague imbalance in various metaphysical asserted-virtues. You can’t run coherent law courts designed to ferret out threats to “individualism” (cops? billboards? too many people wearing the same shirt? twins?).
And so, even as I’ve listened to many a speech extolling “liberty” and “pluralism” and so forth, I suppose I’ve always been translating such vague rhetoric in my mind into the only thing that can really provide simultaneous moral, legal, empirical, and linguistic clarity in these matters — with the added bonuses of ease of transmissibility to new learners and the potential to be employed in any culture, or for that matter any planet, unlike more culturally- or psychologically- or historically-rooted concepts.
Property is as universalizable as game theory, which cannot be said for, say, an ethnically-rooted religion or even a revered but historically-rooted document. These other things are tolerable as imperfect but sometimes necessary real-world instantiations of the abstraction lying in back and well above them, which is property, with its correlation to mutually-beneficial exchange, and thus to preference-fulfillment, and thus to increased utility, and thus to the moral and efficient organization of society, more direct than the crude approximations to be found in the cases of, say, national sovereignty or some quirky vision of personal flourishing, be it Objectivist or Viking.
Of course, some would say that the danger in an abstract, universalizable code (like the danger some see implicit in the Enlightenment) is that it fosters the imperialistic desire to go out and actually universalize it, no matter what the natives think (not that I’m so sure that’s an awful outcome). To wrestle with that matter, I’ll do three things, and with at least one of them, you can help immensely:
•I’ll review the book After the Victorians, about the collapse of the British Empire, on this site next month.
•I’ll declare August a “Month of Imperialism” on this blog (that sounds like fun) and blog about some of these issues.
•I’ll host a Debate at Lolita Bar on August 12th (8pm) on the question “Can There Be Benign Imperialism?” We have our imperialist, so if you’re an anti-imperialist and you’re free and in NYC that night, perhaps you should contact me at the e-mail address on my About/CONTACT page (linked in the right margin of my front page) and volunteer. You don’t want the British to walk all over you, do you? If you’re like (murderer and) antiglobalization philosopher Antonio Negri, you don’t even want them selling you things. Please make your case.