What is the highest political value, or end?
Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.
– John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, The History of Freedom
Yes, that’s my answer as well. Liberty. Now, that answer needs some explaining, because liberty is understood or developed very differently by different people.
“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” – George Bernard Shaw
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” – United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights
“Liberty," boomed Wednesday, as they walked to the car, "is a bitch who must be bedded on a mattress of corpses.” – Neil Gaiman, American Gods
“We are convinced that liberty without socialism is privilege, injustice; and that socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.” – Mikhail Bakunin
“Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade...” – Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
“Cultural liberty is a vital part of human development because being able to choose one’s identity – who one is – without losing the respect of others or being excluded from other choices is important in leading a full life.” – United Nations Development Program
To further clarify my answer and use of the word: I have liberty in my person and in my justly acquired property. I have no unconditioned liberty beyond this; I have no right to encroach on another’s person and property without permission. In other words, liberty is conditioned by the non-aggression principle:
The non-aggression principle is an ethical stance which asserts that "aggression" is inherently illegitimate. "Aggression" is defined as the "initiation" of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property. In contrast to pacifism, the non-aggression principle does not preclude violent self-defense.
This raises a question, and a real point of confusion for many. Which is the highest political value: liberty or the non-aggression principle? Or, to put it another way, is libertarianism sufficient for liberty? Wait, I think I asked this question once before:
If liberty is the objective, is the non-aggression principle sufficient?
Is libertarianism [the non-aggression principle] sufficient for liberty? Everything about man’s cultural and moral evolution answers with a resounding “no”; everything about how cooperative relationships are formed answers with a resounding “no.”
What is the objective? Is it to live lives of NAP purists and theoreticians, or is it to achieve liberty? Which is the higher political value? What if both cannot be achieved – which is preferred? Murray Rothbard opens his book, The Ethics of Liberty, with the following:
“All of my work has revolved around the central question of human liberty.”
The man who has written more about liberty and the non-aggression principle is clear that his objective is liberty, not the purification of the NAP.
Now, one will say, “without the NAP, you do not have liberty.” Fair enough. But what if with only the NAP I also do not have liberty? Also fair enough. What should I then aim for: liberty or the NAP?
A false choice, you say. Is it? To repeat the quote by which I opened the post that started one of the lengthier discussions we have had at this blog in a long time:
…you cannot protect the value of respecting each other’s liberties with the value of respecting each other’s liberties. That value has to come from somewhere…
For the non-aggression principle to function, something more is necessary – something foundational, something that precedes it. For this, again we turn to Rothbard:
“What I have been trying to say is that Mises's utilitarian, relativist approach to ethics is not nearly enough to establish a full case for liberty. It must be supplemented by an absolutist ethic—an ethic of liberty, as well as of other values needed for the health and development of the individual—grounded on natural law, i.e., discovery of the laws of man's nature.”
For the non-aggression principle to function, a natural law ethic is required. And this comes to the “throw the bums out” part. If an individual is a regular violator of the natural law ethic, and advocates that others do the same, they are a threat to the liberty of all others in the community. They do not belong in a community dedicated to maintaining liberty. They will destroy the liberty of others if they remain – even if their actions do not violate the non-aggression principle.
Hans Hoppe has demonstrated this necessity better than anyone, which I examine here.
But what does this mean? This ethic covers far more ground than the NAP – don’t hit first, don’t take my stuff. Are we now to expand “laws” to address violations of the Golden Rule (a neat summation of the natural law ethic)?
No. Per Thomas Aquinas, the individual who perhaps did more than anyone to develop and explain the natural law ethic:
Now human law is framed for a number of human beings, the majority of whom are not perfect in virtue. Wherefore human laws do not forbid all vices, from which the virtuous abstain, but only the more grievous vices, from which it is possible for the majority to abstain; and chiefly those that are to the hurt of others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be maintained: thus human law prohibits murder, theft and such like. (Emphasis added)
Human law is to be applied in cases of murder, theft and such like. In other words: don’t hit first, don’t take my stuff. For Thomas, natural law describes an ethical way to live, not a basis for human law.
Walter Block applies this well:
A more sophisticated understanding of libertarianism does not say, with the NAP: “Thou shalt not murder, initiate violence against innocent persons or their legitimate possessions.” Rather, it states, that if you do, you will be punished in accordance with libertarian punishment theory.
It is in this way that the non-aggression principle should be considered. When it is considered as a moral code and peddled as all that is necessary for liberty, it is asked to do more than it is capable of doing. Which, the, in the eyes of many, turns it into a joke.
So, what to do with this? On a clean sheet of paper, one can build a covenant community with natural law ethical standards included as a condition for remaining in the community. Those who sign up for this agreement have done so voluntarily, therefore are not suffering a violation if the community throws them out for violations of the ethic.
But we don’t live in this clean sheet. We also don’t live in an environment where enough of the population (let alone the tools of control and indoctrination used against the population, e.g., government, media, universities), accept and are willing to enforce such conditions on behavior.
This is why I offer that it is up to the Church to teach natural law, and to expect such behavior from its members. This is why I believe it is necessary that universities, certainly Catholic universities, revert to teaching this ethic as a core part of a healthy liberal arts program.
Until this happens, our liberty will continue to sink. And if it doesn’t happen, eventually natural law – which cannot be violated egregiously and for an extended time without consequence – will defend itself.