Friday, 25 May 2012

The Task of Political Philosophers

Libertarianism is a political philosophy.  Before explaining what libertarianism is and making a case for it over all other political philosophies, it is first necessary to understand what political philosophy is, and what the task of the political philosopher is.

We live in a world characterised by scarcity.  An object is scarce if it can be used in multiple incompatible ways.  For example, apples are scarce because, for a given apple, it can be used to make an apple pie, OR put into a fruit salad, OR eaten alone.  It cannot be used for more than one of these purposes.  One cannot eat an apple and have it too.  Once it has been used for one purpose, it no longer exists to serve another purpose.  Because of scarcity, humans must make choices.  If I have an apple, I must decide to use it for one purpose to the exclusion of other incompatible purposes.

We also live in a world of diversity; different people have different ideas about how to use scarce objects.  For a given apple, either I use it for my chosen purpose, or you use it for your purpose.  We cannot both use the apple because our purposes are incompatible.  Ultimately, either I will get to use the apple, or you will.  Scarce objects in a world of multiple individuals are rivalrous objects.  The rivalry is between the two people who both want to use the same scarce object, but for different purposes, and they cannot both get their way.  All material objects are scarce and potentially rivalrous. 
Non-human animals have to deal with the problem of rivalrous objects, just like humans do.  When non-human animals have a dispute over how some object is to be used, they have little choice but to fight for it or lose it to the other party.  They are permanently in a state of war of all-against-all because they lack the attribute that has enabled humans to solve the problem of rivalrous goods: reason.  Without some way to peacefully resolve disputes about rivalrous goods, civilization could not have developed.

What was the solution that evolved in humans to solve the problem of rivalrous goods?  The answer is the concept of property.  Property is the idea that certain scarce objects are associated with certain individuals.  The individual is said to be the owner of the scarce object.  This means that whenever there is a dispute about some scarce object, the question to ask is ‘who is the owner of this object?’  Because the owner is the individual who has, or ought to have, ultimate decision-making jurisdiction over how that scarce object is used.  

If you and I both want to use the same apple for our own incompatible purposes, which one of us will get his way?  Who will get to exercise ultimate decision-making jurisdiction over the apple?  The answer is by definition the (de facto) owner of the apple.  The owner of the apple gets to decide how the apple gets used, and no other party can use the apple for a different purpose without the consent of the owner.  If you own the apple and I do use the apple against your wishes, I would be ‘violating a property boundary’, or ‘infringing on your (ownership) rights’.

Humans have evolved to intuitively understand and acknowledge the principle of ownership.  Most of us understand that it is wrong to use an object belonging to another person without their consent. 
Not everyone accepts or respects this concept however.  If a person does violate a property boundary, either intentionally or accidentally, the owner and the violator are involved in a dispute about a scarce object.  If they cannot resolve the dispute peacefully, and do not want to be at war with each other, they may turn to a third-party to help them resolve the dispute.  That third-party is offering dispute resolution services.  

The dispute-resolver or ‘judge’ must first establish the facts of the dispute he is trying to resolve.  But agreement on the facts is not always sufficient to resolve the dispute. The dispute may have more to do with principles.  Both parties may claim to be the rightful owner, and accuse the other of violating their rights.  You may say “I own the apple because of X, therefore Graham violated my right when he ate my apple”.  I may say “I own the apple because of Y, therefore Ben violated my right when he ate my apple”.

The judge must now decide who has the stronger claim to be the owner of the apple, or who has the strongest link to it.  He needs to establish which party is the owner of the object in dispute, and which party is the violator.  The judge must assess your claim X against my claim Y.  The judge may look to previous disputes of this kind to see how they were resolved.  Or he may turn to political philosophy to guide his decision.

Political philosophy is the subject that seeks to answer the question: which individuals ought to own which scarce objects?  The task of the political philosopher is to devise or to promote some set of principles for determining who ought to own what.  For all possible claims X and Y, the political philosopher must specify whether he considers claim X or claim Y to be the stronger claim.  If a particular political philosophy pronounces that your claim X is stronger then my claim than Y, this is another way of saying that you are the proper owner of the disputed apple, and hence I violated your rights by eating the apple without your consent.  

In other words, political philosophy, by specifying principles for determining who owns what, is committed to saying that certain actions are violations of rights and others are not.  By definition the political philosopher considers an owner entitled to defend his property against potential violators, and an owner who has had a property boundary violated is entitled to take certain actions in retaliation against the violator.  Political philosophers promote an opinion about what constitutes justice, or what actions between individuals are acceptable or ‘just’ in various situations.

Libertarianism, then, is a particular set of principles for deciding who ought to have ultimate decision-making jurisdiction over which scarce objects.  The most important principles in libertarianism are the principles of homesteading and voluntary exchange.  I will explain these principles and make a case for them in a later post.


  1. Excellent clarity! Looking forward to the next ones.

    1. Thank you!

      I have just posted the third in this series - called "The Task of Economists".

      In case you missed it, the second one is called "Libertarian Property Assignment Rules".