Thursday, 26 August 2010

What is a Right?

All rights are property rights, or rights of ownership. That is, the word ‘right’ does not make any sense except in terms of property and ownership. So, first of all: what is property?


Property is the word given to scarce objects which are under human control, claimed, and given boundaries. Property rules are rules establishing what individuals can and cannot do with the scarce objects around them. They are rules used for resolving conflicts peacefully.

Now I will deconstruct this definition of property.

A scarce object is one over which a conflict may arise, where two individuals both want to use the object, but they cannot. Scarcity is context-dependent. Usually, oxygen in the air is not a scarce resource, because my use of the oxygen in the air does not prevent you from also using the oxygen in the air. Water is usually scarce, because only one individual can use a given piece of water; my drinking the water prevents you from drinking it.

A scarce object is under human control if one individual possesses the ability to use the object as some means in action. The sun is not under human control, since no one has the power to control it.

A scarce object is claimed if one individual expresses his will to use the object and to exclude others from using it.

The scarce object being claimed must have definite boundaries, delimiting the extent of the control asserted in the claim.

The first step to resolving a conflict (a property dispute) is to ask the question: has a legitimate property boundary been violated? Aggression is the term given to a violation of a legitimate property boundary.


The owner of a property is the individual who has expressed a claim to it; the individual claiming ultimate decision-making power over how the property is used.  When two or more individuals claim to be the owner of some property, a conflict arises.

Let us suppose the conflict relates to an apple. A has eaten the apple, but B claims that he was the owner of the apple, and hence A has violated his legitimate property boundary, i.e. B claims A has aggressed against him. A retorts that in fact he had ownership of the apple, and therefore did not violate any property boundary. Both men are claiming ownership of the apple. Both men are claiming the right to be able to use the apple: the right to ultimate decision-making jurisdiction over it.

We can now elaborate three different senses of ownership:

De facto ownership. A de facto owner of some property is the individual who, in fact, has ultimate decision-making power over how a property is used.

Legal ownership. A legal owner of some property is the individual who, were a dispute to arise over the property, a given court (dispute resolution service) will award ownership to.

Normative ownership. A normative owner of some property is the individual who should have ownership of the property, according to some particular legal philosophy.

To continue with the example, who is the owner of the apple? Well, suppose that, for some reason, B backs down and accepts that A was the owner of the apple. Then, it is the case that A is the de facto owner of the apple. His will prevailed.

Let us suppose instead that A and B both stand firm, and decide to approach C to try and resolve the conflict through peaceful means. C decides that B was the owner, so A did violate a legitimate property boundary. In this case, B is the legal owner of the apple, according to the property rules as pronounced by C.

All legal philosophies relate to who should have ownership of a given property. They make assertions about who the rightful (proper, just, normative) owner of a given property is. They are based on some principle of assigning property rights.

For example, consider a philosophy which asserts that the normative owner of all apples is A. According to this philosophy, A is therefore the rightful owner of the disputed apple. If the case is taken to C, and C uses property rules based on this philosophy, he will award legal ownership to A.

Libertarianism is a philosophy which asserts that the rightful first owner of any property is the homesteader (the individual who has established an intersubjectively ascertainable link between himself and the object, by bringing that property into existence). Subsequent owners are only considered legitimate if they have all acquired the property through voluntary exchanges.

Let us suppose that it was B that picked the apple from an unowned tree. According to the libertarian philosophy then, B is the rightful owner. A libertarian court, pronouncing property rules based on the libertarian philosophy, would award legal ownership of the apple to B.


I will now return to the original question: what is a right?

There are three senses of rights. De facto rights are those rights that are actually in place in a given situation. If it is the case that A eats the apple, and B accepts this, then A has a de facto right to eat the apple. He is the de facto owner of the apple. Legal rights are those rights which are recognized by a given court. Normative rights are the rights that are regarded as just by some particular legal philosophy.

Much confusion arises due to confusing these different senses of rights. Consider the following example: the right to possess heroin. A legal scholar may turn to a set of laws and discover that no one (except the government) has the right to possess heroin. He is referring to legal rights.

A socialist philosopher may argue that no one (except the government) has the right to possess heroin. A libertarian philosopher may argue that all individuals have the right to possess heroin. They are both talking about normative rights; they disagree because they have different ideals and principles for how property (and therefore rights) should be assigned.

It may be the case that some heroin is not in fact owned by the government, but non-government individuals actually have full control of some of it. The government has expressed a claim to be the only ones with the right to possess heroin, but they are unable to enforce their claim. The heroin possessors have de facto rights to their heroin, but no legal rights, according to the government-run courts. Anyone who has a view about whether heroin should be legal or not is making a normative assertion about rights, based on their ethical values.

The Existence of Rights

Confusion over the definition of rights leads some people to proclaim that “rights do not exist”. Given the definitions above, it is clear that de facto rights always exist, and legal rights always exist, so this statement is incorrect. It may be claimed that what is meant by this statement is that normative rights do not exist. However, this is also incorrect. Everyone who has a view about what justice is, about what actions are aggression, about what constitutes ethical and unethical behaviour, is making a judgment about how property rights should be assigned.

The sentiment behind this statement could be better stated as “objective normative rights do not exist”. That is, there are no objective rules about ethics, about how property rights should be assigned.

That rights exist is undeniable. It is up for debate what constitutes just property rights, and legal philosophers of all kinds attempt to answer this question – libertarians and socialists alike.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Austrian Business Cycle Theory - How Government Manipulation of Interest Rates Causes Booms, Busts, Recessions and Depressions

This presentation starts by looking at how the market process works: coordination through prices and profits.

The two alternative theories of the business cycle are introduced:

- The non-Austrian theories, which blame the cycle on the free market and call for government to take control.

- And the Austrian Theory of the Business Cycle (ABCT), which blames the cycle on government manipulation of interest rates.

The boom, bust and recession stages of the ABCT are analyzed in detail. It is concluded that government actions only prolong recessions and make them more severe. And the business cycle would not occur with interest rates determined on a free market.

This presentation was first delivered in July 2010.

Video: Technology and Social Change

Here's a video of a great talk on technology and social change by Jeffrey Tucker. Amusing anecdotes, insightful analysis of the market process, and some excellent utilitarian arguments against intellectual property.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

How Much Government is Necessary?

A lengthy, in-depth discussion and debate of the question: how much government is necessary.  Stephan Molyneux argues the anarchist position that no government is necessary.  Michael Badnarik defends the minarchist view that a small government, limited by a constitution, is necessary for the production of law.

Video: The Philosophy of Liberty

I have always found this little animation compelling for its simplicity in demonstrating the principles of libertarian philosophy.

Money. What is it?

A collection of clips from Hans-Hermann Hoppe and Jorg Guido Hulsmann lectures, providing succinct answers to questions such as: Why do we trade? What is money What is inflation?

What is the Austrian School of Economics? How does it differ from Marxist, Keynesian and Chicago Schools of Economics?

Economics is, understandably, known as ‘the dismal science’. Get a large group of economists in a room together, and they will likely provide a huge variety of different, and mutually contradictory, answers to the same question. It may be a question about government policy, or about what causes prosperity, or about what causes booms and busts. It may even be a more fundamental question about a basic economic law or principle.

Economists are often misunderstood, and misunderstand each other. They often have different definitions of basic terms like money, inflation, monopoly, savings and profits. Debates about economics often sound like the Tower of Babel, where mutual misunderstandings abound.

Economists will even disagree with each other on the question: what is economics?

Economists are categorised according to which “school of thought” they subscribe to. The major schools are Marxists, Keynesians, Chicagoans, and Austrians.

The Austrian School has a unique approach to economics. While all the other schools perceive economics as being an empirical subject – in which hypotheses are created from observations, data and statistics, and tested using predictions – the Austrian School perceives economics as an axiomatic-deductive subject, similar to mathematics. Austrian economists reason with logic rather than through use of the “scientific method”, which they criticize as being inappropriate for the science of economics.

All Austrian economic laws and principles are logically derived from a single axiom: that humans act. That is, humans behave purposefully, using means to try to achieve chosen ends; rearranging their environment to a more satisfactory condition to try to remove “felt uneasiness”.

Basic economic principles – such as the law of association (aka the law of comparative advantage), the law of marginal utility, and the law of diminishing returns – can be derived from the action axiom using logic.

By understanding the laws of human action, we can understand how the market process works. The market process is coordinated by profits, and operates through entrepreneurs being free to seek profits. This is the so-called ‘invisible hand’ which guides the actions of humans and results in a complex structure of production that maximises prosperity. Due to the market process, no central planner is needed for society to function or for prosperity to be generated. No state is needed.

In fact, Austrian economics shows that all government actions – the very existence of government itself – must lower the level of prosperity in society. All government actions waste resources, because when a government involves itself, it disrupts the market process which maximises prosperity. Governments can only redistribute and destroy wealth; they cannot add to it.

Austrian economics is “value-free”. It does not assume any particular ideology. It merely demonstrates the effects of different ideologies, policies and actions. If the economist adopts prosperity as his goal, he must advocate free markets. If the economist favors poverty, at least for some individuals, he must endorse some from of government interventionism. This is the lesson of Austrian economics.

The ultimate form of government interventionism is pure socialism: a monopoly run by the government. This arrangement will lead to impoverishment. The major problem with monopoly, from an economic perspective, is an ability to calculate. The monopolist cannot rationally allocate resources, since that requires prices that have been formed in a free market. Supply and demand are thus critically severed, and there is vast wastage of resources.

A government monopoly, unlike a free market firm, does not go out of business when it fails to satisfy consumer desires efficiently. It endures, and may even receive more of the proceeds of taxation. Incentives are chronically skewed. Corruption is endemic. The structure of production is geared not towards satisfying consumers, but towards enriching the monopolist at the expense of consumers. A monopoly is a system of coercive wealth redistribution.

The two alternatives – free markets or monopolies – are central to any political discussion. Should any given industry be run by a monopoly or by free market firms? The question is always the same. Austrian economics shows us that, whatever the industry, a free market will best satisfy consumers.

A market that is subject to regulations, but not entirely socialized, is a middle-of-the-road policy. The number, nature and scope of the regulations in an industry determine the extent of cartelization in that industry. A cartel is a set of firms that has been given a monopoly privilege in a given industry. All regulations have the effect of cartelizing industries; benefiting existing producers at the expense of potential new competitors, and protecting large firms at the expense of smaller firms.

In terms of policy endorsements, Marxist economists tend to favor full socialism, aka communism. Keynesians and Chicago School economists tend to favor full socialism in certain industries (such as law, security, money, roads, education). In other industries, Keynesians tend to favor heavy regulations, a system known as corporatism or State-capitalism, while Chicago economists tend to favor some free markets. These economists have reached different conclusions based on their various ways of analysing and interpreting economic data, which is the nature of economics in their view.

Austrian economists disregard data when formulating theories. Data can only be used to demonstrate Austrian theory in action. Austrian theories cannot be falsified by any new data or observations. Austrian economics is logically derived from an incontestable axiom; so long as the logic is sound, the theories are similarly incontestable, or apodictically certain.

Since Austrian economics demonstrates unequivocally that free markets generate prosperity better than monopolies or government interventionism, in any industry, Austrian economists tend to be libertarian anarchists.

What is Anarchy?

Anarchy is absence of government. Government is a territorial monopolist of law. Anarchy is therefore a free market in the production of law.

The term anarchy literally means “no rulers”. The relationship between rulers and the people they rule over is a master-slave relationship. Anarchy, then, can also be interpreted as “no slavery”.

Absence of rulers does not mean absence of rules. Rules – laws specifying property ownership – are necessary for society to function, and they can be voluntarily agreed to. The usefulness of rules creates market demand for them, as with any other good. Entrepreneurs will therefore strive to meet that demand, by establishing courts and employing judges to resolve disputes.

Driven by the profit motive, the laws produced under a free market arrangement will reflect the customs of society and the views of consumers about justice. As always under a free market arrangement, the laws will be high quality, produced efficiently and for a low price. There will also be diversity of courts available for consumers to choose from, perhaps using different legal codes.

All legal systems specify rules for property ownership. They determine who the “rightful” owner of any given property is. In the event of a dispute, a court must determine if a violation of property boundaries has taken place, and then specify a resolution. If necessary, courts will employ law enforcement to see that justice is administered.  Conflicts between courts will be resolved by using a voluntarily agreed-upon third court.

An anarchist, qua anarchist, is not concerned with the content of law; only with the arrangements under which law is provided. Under an anarchic arrangement, each individual can choose the set of laws he would like to live by. No one is bound to any set of rulers, based on his territorial location, nationality, or anything else. No one is a slave.

What is Libertarianism?

Libertarianism is a political philosophy. Like all political philosophies, it is a system, or set of principles, for allocating property ownership. It provides an answer to the question: who is the rightful owner of X?

Law is the application of political philosophy. All courts must operate according to some political philosophy, since dispute resolution involves, first and foremost, determining who the rightful owner of the disputed property is.

In libertarianism, property can be rightfully acquired only by (a) homesteading, or (b) voluntary exchange. These principles are held to be universal: no-one can rightfully acquire property any other way, for example, by stealing it.

Property is originally created through the interaction of labor and nature. The homesteading principle is that the first owner of the property – the “homesteader” – is the individual who supplied the labor. It is the formation of an objective link between the homesteader and the property that gives him the right to ultimate decision-making jurisdiction over how that property is used, i.e. ownership rights.

Property ownership rights can be transferred from one individual to another by either voluntary exchange or coerced exchange. Libertarians believe that only voluntary exchanges constitute a rightful exchange of property. Involuntary exchanges include murder, rape, slavery, assault, theft, fraud and trespass. Under libertarian law, these activities are outlawed.

Libertarianism can be contrasted with socialism. Under socialism, the first owner of original property is not always the homesteader; the most obvious case being the outlawing of drugs. And some involuntary exchanges are lawful; the most obvious case being taxation.

Socialism is necessarily non-universal; there are different laws for State employees, such as tax collectors, than there are for non-State employees. Most individuals are not allowed to threaten others with violence if they do not pay tribute.

Government is incompatible with libertarianism. A government is a territorial monopolist of law. The only way a government can maintain this territorial monopoly is by aggressing against potential new competitors in the production of law and forcing individuals within the territory from using any other legal system for conflict resolution. Government therefore necessarily violates the libertarian principle that only voluntary exchanges are rightful.

A libertarian, qua libertarian, is concerned with ending acts of aggression, as that term is understood according to libertarian philosophy. Under libertarian law, no individual is allowed to initiate coercive exchanges.

"Fear the Boom and Bust": A Hayek vs Keynes Rap Anthem

The premise: economists F. A. Hayek and John Maynard Keynes are resurrected, and are back to debate the causes of the current financial crisis.  The debate takes the form of a rap.

Economics in One Lesson: Wars, Governments, Price Controls and the Boom-Bust Cycle

Based on the Henry Hazlitt book, this presentation is an introduction to applied economics. Hazlitt’s lesson, to consider what is unseen as well as what is seen, is applied to various situations: broken windows, wars and governments.

The market process for allocating resources is introduced, and the effects of price controls, such as the minimum wage law, on resource allocation is examined.

Finally, the One Lesson and the theory of price controls is applied to the phenomenon of the boom-bust cycle, which is explained as a necessary consequence of government manipulation of interest rates.

This presentation was first delivered in June 2010.  No previous knowledge of economics is assumed.

Two Ways of Getting Rich

How can an individual get rich? There are only two ways:

One way is to steal his way to riches. He can use the “political means”, which is to use violence or threats of violence. People are coerced into giving up their money.

The other way is to persuade people to voluntarily give up their money. This is the “economic means”. This requires the individual to produce something that other people want.

Libertarians reject the initiation of violence or threats of violence, so they reject the “political means”. So in a libertarian society, if somebody is very rich, it must be because he has produced things of great value to other people. There simply is no other way for an individual to become rich.

The “desire to become rich,” usually presented as a bad thing, can be interpreted, in a libertarian society, as the “desire to satisfy the most urgent and important needs and wants of as many people as possible”.

In other words, greed is good, for want of a better phrase, as long as the economic means is used and not the political means.