Pondering a title for this post, I considered “Why I am a left libertarian”, “Why I am not a right (or a left) libertarian” and “Left, right, thick and thin” before settling on “What does liberty require?”. In my way of thinking, essential liberty requires little more than consent to the rules governing one’s interaction with others. A person isolated from others has no liberty and needs none. S/he is constrained only by the forces of nature, and a force of nature does not violate anyone’s liberty. Liberty is meaningful only when people interact, and consent to the terms of this interaction is the essence of liberty.

Does liberty require an individualistic, Lockean formulation of property rights? Suppose a person encounters another person in a wilderness. The first person has for some time occupied a parcel of land. He has built a dwelling on the land entirely by his own labor using only natural resources. He has cleared, planted and harvested the land many times over many seasons, and he has clearly marked the boundary of the land he tends this way. Does liberty require the second person to cross this boundary, consume fruits of the land and otherwise use the land only with the consent of the first?

A formulation of liberty common today answers this question affirmatively, but within the formulation of liberty we consider here, the question has no answer in general. The answer is “yes” only if the second person consents to Lockean standards of propriety.

A community respecting conventional, Lockean propriety seems plausible. A group of people agree to establish a settlement on unoccupied land. Everyone in the group consents to these property rights. Settlers claim land, clear, plant and harvest it. Everyone establishing this community understands that a family harvesting fruits from land that the family has cleared and planted may consume these fruits or exchange the fruits for other goods produced by other settlers but that no other person may consume the fruits without this family’s consent.

I sometimes accept the “left libertarian” label, because in my way of thinking, a family does not obtain in this way an absolute right, in perpetuity, to this land or even to its fruits produced entirely by the family’s labor from natural resources. I’m sympathetic to the family’s claim on these fruits and (to a lesser extent) on the land, but I can also imagine scenarios in which I expect the family to part with the land and to surrender its fruits without an equitable exchange.

Furthermore, I doubt that many settlements on a frontier began this way, the Lockean story of property notwithstanding. I rather suppose that groups of people settling frontiers consented to other standards. These standards may complement Lockean propriety, but Lockean property rights are not the heart and soul of the standards as some libertarians suppose.

Tom Woods is one of my favorite, contemporary libertarians. I admire his productivity, he speaks for me more often than not, and after following his work for years, I don’t recall any vehement disagreements. I’ll call him “Tom” here, rather than “Woods”, to emphasize a sense of kinship and intending no disrespect.

Tom tells a story of the settlement of Plymouth as follows. Initially, the settlers respected very communal property rights, either inspired by their Christian faith or imposed somehow by their corporate sponsors, presumably both. After a few seasons, the settlers realized that their communal standards of propriety were not sufficiently productive to sustain their settlement, so they adopted more individualistic standards, more like the family’s exclusive claim to land and its fruits above, whereupon the settlement prospered.

I take this story for granted, but a naive interpretation of the story is fallacious. We might suppose that, having seen the error of communal ways inspired by an unfortunate interpretation of the Christian faith or by unfortunate economic assumptions of their sponsors (or both), the Plymouth settlers became devout Rothbardians instead. I rather suspect that the settlers only modified their communal standards slightly, as a means to communitarian ends that they continued to seek.

Far from becoming devout individualists, the settlers adopted standards that Rothbard would find only slightly more palatable, with many obligations of proprietors outside of any Rothbardian formulation, and these obligations were no more optional among the settlers than respect for exclusive rights to parcels of land was optional. I’m no historian, while Tom is an eminent historian, but I’m so confident of this suspicion that an exploration of the relevant history hardly seems necessary.

In How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, Tom defends libertarian principles less than he debunks common fallacies, typically unflattering, of the history of the Catholic Church. I’m not a Catholic or even conventionally religious, but I identify my libertarian ideals, to some extent, with ideals of Catholic thinkers like G. K. Chesterton. I intend later at this site to discuss distributist principles along the lines of Chesterton’s, within a theory of communities rightfully governing resources and defending these resources from invasion by persons favoring other standards.

Tom’s book makes a case not so much for the constructive influence of Popes, Bishops and the hierarchical, administrative bureaucracy of the Church as for the influence of monastic, Christian communities, and I again take many of Tom’s conclusions for granted, but a Christian monastery is hardly an anarcho-capitalist organization, and a monastery accepting Murray Rothbard into its fold is difficult to imagine.

Furthermore, I doubt that Christian monasticism makes sense as a monolithic Church. I rather imagine the Church, with the support of imperial states, essentially as a parasite on the network of Christian communities that Tom credits with building western civilization. Again, taking Tom’s conclusions for granted, I suppose Christian monasticism built western civilization while the Church hierarchy grew more by taxing Christian communities than by its marginal value to them.

I suppose the established Roman Church opposed Christian communities that preceded it, or sought coercively to divert them from various ends they sought, as much as it ever embodied the principles of these communities. Of course, this coercion was often directed at communities that the established Church and its allied states declared not to be “Christian” at all, but this point hardly needs a defense.

A network of Christian monasteries, and Christian communities more generally, is not the sort of organization that many contemporary libertarians imagine as most desirable and productive. On the contrary, many modern libertarians seem to hold these communities responsible for many, if not most, of the evils of statecraft, even embracing the notion of a “dark age” in which Christian principles, imposed on common humanity, stifled progress for centuries. Tom seeks to debunk this notion, and I’m inclined to accept his conclusions, but I can’t easily imagine a voluntary network of Christian communities embodying anarcho-capitalism.

Tom credits early Christians with a development of market economics preceding the classical liberals, but I suppose these Christians understood property and markets as means to Christian ends rather than as ethical foundations. I doubt that they understood respect for a proprietor’s exclusive governance of a resource as absolutely obligatory while regarding respect for the golden rule, or even “if a man demands your shirt, give him your cloak as well”, as merely suggestive. I suppose they understood the latter to be as obligatory as the former, if not more so, while acknowledging the complexities of both.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that Christian principles should be obligatory universally. I am rather suggesting that particular standards of propriety, including conventional property rights isolated from other standards, should not be. Conventional property rights did not evolve apart from other standards, and people generally do not want to live in communities in which only respect for these rights is obligatory. Since many people don’t want to live in communities organized this way, communities of this sort cannot be free communities in my way of thinking.

So what does property require in the liberal archipelago? My answer is consent, the consent of persons expected to respect the property rights; however, this answer raises other questions. Returning to the person on his homestead, does another person owe the homesteader respect for any property rights? If so, what are these rights precisely? Does the homesteader owe the other person anything in return? If so, what and under what circumstances? I suppose these questions have no answer outside of a community in which community members consent to community standards, and we can’t know the answer without knowing more about the community.

I am not suggesting that anyone outside of such a community may violate the community’s standards with impunity. I’m rather suggesting that, because rights are community standards that members agree to respect by joining a community, a person outside of the community has no meaningful rights at all within the community. This person has no obligation to respect the community’s standards, but neither does the community have an obligation to respect any right the person imagines. This person’s relationship to members of the community is like the relationship between creatures in the state of nature, where a creature dines on any other creature it overpowers.

Lately, libertarians have debated thick conceptions of liberty vs. thin conceptions, with advocates of a thick conception typically, these days, identifying more with the “left”. “Thick” liberty asserts individual rights beyond conventional property rights, a right to be free of discrimination based on sexual preference for example. “Thin” liberty asserts only conventional property rights, including self-ownership, and suggests no obligation of proprietors to respect other rights of a person, even if thin libertarians agree that discrimination based on sexual preference is unethical and/or irrational.

The conception of liberty described here, though I associate it more with “left” than with “right”, is nonetheless extremely thin, even thinner than anarcho-capitalism or a conventional night watchman state. It rejects the universality not only of thick rights like freedom from various forms of discrimination. It also rejects the universality of practically all rights, including conventional property rights, other than a right freely to associate with others sharing a preference for particular standards of propriety.

At this site, I hope to explore the implications of such a thin conception of liberty, including the parameters of something like a night watchman state establishing its principles. Such a minarchy neither rules out nor rules in conventional property rights. It protects a right of individuals to establish communities governed only by the consensus of community members and a right of persons to leave any community at will.

The ideal is a federation of intentional communities wherein 1) the price of membership in a community is adherence to the community’s standards, 2) persons may leave any community at will and 3) a community persists only while a sufficient number of people freely remain within it. How does such a community govern resources other than its members? What land and other resources may it claim, and how does waning membership weaken this claim? What rights does an exiting member enjoy? Does a community have obligations toward its members other than an obligation to permit members to exit? Does a right to exit imply other obligations?

I’ll propose answers to these questions, more to explore the implications of particular answers than to discover answers beyond dispute. Needless to say, debate is welcome.