Freedom Can’t Exist in a Vacuum

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Freedom Can’t Exist in a Vacuum

Posted in : Theology and Political Philosophy on by : Michael Maharrey

Most people yearn for freedom – at least for themselves. It ranks among the “high principles” humankind strives for. But freedom can’t exist in a vacuum. When you divorce freedom from a broader moral/ethical framework, you end up with thinking that goes like this.

“Abortion is legal because you have no right to tell free people they can’t commit murder.”

That was an actual comment on a Facebook thread. There’s no way to tell if this person was serious or simply trolling. But within the context of the thread, the comment appeared completely serious.

This individual appears to believe freedom is absolute – that nobody has a right to restrain his actions in any way.

There is, in fact, a small segment of the “liberty movement” that seems to hold this view. They embrace a type of libertinism that rejects any limits on behavior. While saying you don’t have a right to stop murder is extreme even for these folks, it is the logical conclusion when you divorce the idea of “freedom” from a broader framework of property rights and non-aggression.

At its core, freedom is the ability to direct your actions without interference from others. But it’s not a priori evident that individuals have a right to freedom.  What gives you the right to exercise freedom? The idea actually flows out of an understanding of property rights.

Three of very earliest commandments God handed down to Moses reveal the legitimacy of property rights. “Thou shalt not covet and thou shalt not steal” both imply a private property right. Certain things belong to certain people and others do not have a right to the use of those things. And “thou shalt not murder” implies an individual’s right to themselves.

If you own something, you possess it and have the exclusive right to use it as you see fit. You exercise exclusive control your property. Based on that definition, every person owns her or himself.  Hans Hermann Hoppe explained it in simple terms.

“Every person has the exclusive right of ownership of his body within the boundaries of its surface. Every person can put his body to those uses that he thinks best for his immediate or long-run interest,  well-being, or satisfaction.”

The very way we talk about bodies as “mine,” “his,” or “hers” implies we intuitively embrace the idea of self-ownership. We are assigning property titles and distinguishing between property owners.

But why do we need property rights in the first place? What’s the point?

Broadly speaking, private property rights evolved because they solve a fundamental problem of human existence. They offer a way to minimize the conflicts that inevitably arise in a world of scarcity. As Hoppe explained, property rights help avoid potential clashes over the use of scarce resources by assigning rights of exclusive ownership.

“Property is thus a normative concept: a concept designed to make a conflict-free interaction possible by stipulating mutually binding rules of conduct (norms) regarding scarce resources.”

This reveals a weakness in the idea of property rights we’ve so far developed. If you can put your property to any use at all in your best interest, for your well-being, or for your own satisfaction, you could easily cause great harm to others. For instance, it might serve your interest to take my food. It might benefit you to enslave me. If I make you angry, killing me might bring you satisfaction.

A system of property rights that places no restraint on the action I can take with my property fails to solve the fundamental problem it was meant to address. It doesn’t minimize conflict. That’s why Hoppe doesn’t stop with the right to put your body to the uses you think best. He adds an important stipulation.

“As long as he does not interfere with another person’s right to control the use of his/her respective body.”

When you interfere with another person’s control over the use of her body, you commit an act of aggression. Hoppe defines aggression as:

“An action that is performed uninvitedly that invades or changes the physical integrity of another person’s body and puts this body to a use that is not to this very person’s own liking.”

Putting this idea into more practical terms, aggression is “the initiation of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property.”

If we accept this basic right of self-ownership, it follows that aggression is not morally/ethically justified and we have the right to resist it – with force if necessary. This idea serves as one of the key pillars of libertarian thought. It also fits within the broader ethic Jesus commands: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

To bring this full circle, freedom includes not only the right to direct your own actions – to do what you want to do – but also the right to remain free from the aggressive actions of others. If a person, or group of persons, aggresses against you, as a free person, you have every right to defend yourself with violence if you chose to do so. You also have the right to delegate your self-defense to others.

So clearly, “free people” have the right to tell “free people,” they can’t commit murder.

Absent the basic property rights structure described, which includes the right to be free from aggression, freedom can’t actually exist. Divorcing freedom of action from a larger moral/ethical framework results in an absurdity.


Photo by eflon via Flickr used under a creative commons license. 

All Hoppe quotes from The Theory of Socialism and Capitalism

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