No. This article does not challenge traditional gender roles, but the image made you click, right? In both law and custom, an obligation to pay is often controversial, and libertarian formulations of justice raise this question. Constraints on our behavior impose costs. What is a just distribution of these costs?

Libertarians advocate individual choice as the organizing principle of social institutions, and libertarian institutions require exclusive rights to resources and corresponding monopoly rents.1 Libertarians differ on the governance of rents. Who consumes or invests monopoly rents, the person(s) entitled to exclude other persons from a resource (the owner) or the persons excluded? In this article, a right libertarian2 asserts the former while a left libertarian asserts the latter, and we ponder implications of the distinction.

A right libertarian asserts universally individual property rights beyond self-ownership and will enforce these rights regardless of anyone’s consent. Right libertarians differ in detail on the formulation of these rights3, but a right libertarian will forcibly exclude others from a resource like a parcel of land and thus compel others to pay him for use of the resource. Some right libertarians consider these individual rights natural, but differences in detail raise questions.

A left libertarian asserts no individual property rights beyond self-ownership.4 Resources in a free society are governed contractually, by terms of free association. In this sense, all property rights, beyond self-ownership, are collective rights. Individuals constitute a community claiming resources collectively and agree contractually to govern the resources by standards applicable within the community. An individual member may govern particular resources within a community exclusively, if the community’s members agree to govern resources this way, but an individual has no right to exclude others from a resource outside of a voluntary community. An individual’s right to exclude others from a resource requires the consent of the individuals excluded.

The left libertarian formulation does not eliminate monopoly rent, but it reverses the beneficiary. An individual governing a resource exclusively in a free community pays the persons excluded for this right, i.e. the individual owner consents contractually to constraints on his governance of the resource. Constraints on individual ownership are terms of a covenant accepted freely by members of a community.5

Standards of propriety

Respect for an individual member’s right to exclude others from a resource is a rule that members of a free community may agree to respect. For the left libertarian, this rule differs little in principle from other rules that members of a community agree to respect. A free community may enact practically any rule consistent with the inalienable rights6 of members.

For example, members may agree, as a condition of membership, to have sex only within a relationship recognized by the community. A member violating this rule may lose alienable rights, like property in a parcel of land or entitlement to consume other goods (money). Liberty generally includes sexual liberation, but a free community does not. A community ruling out adultery among its members, by fining adulterers for example, is a free community as long as membership in the community is voluntary. Sexual liberation, and liberation generally, is an individual’s right to find or to found a community regulating sexual behavior as the individual prefers.

A free community may also regulate disruptive noise, requiring a member in earshot of another member to listen to music only through headphones without the other member’s consent. A person enjoying music without headphones does not join this community unless other rules compensate him for the loss of his freedom. If I value silence while you value musical freedom, then to live in a community with you, I must pay you to restrict your listening to headphones. You do not pay me similarly to be silent, because my silence is not costly to you. I may also constitute a community with other persons valuing silence and exclude you from resources we claim collectively, as long as you are similarly free to constitute a community with others sharing your values.

A right libertarian may reverse this burden, arguing for example that persons within earshot of one another have different rights to make noise. If I claim a homestead and you later claim a neighboring homestead, then you must pay me for a right to make noise penetrating my property, and you must also pay me not to make noise penetrating yours. This “first come, first served” principle plays an expansive role in right libertarian formulations of individual rights and corresponding constraints on individual action.

A left libertarian, by contrast, has no principled grounds for this reversal and must pay other members of his community to respect all rules that he wants respected7. Seniority in a community is less valuable. If community standards benefit more senior members too much, the community does not attract or retain less senior members, and senior members may ultimately lose their grip on a community’s resources.

Left libertarians want justice privatized (subjected to individual choice) no less than right libertarians. Arguably, they favor this outcome more so, because they do not presume “first come, first served” or any similarly conservative principle of individual property rights. The benefits of seniority in a community is a choice of the community’s members. Individuals exercise this choice, so all individuals everywhere are not bound by a right libertarian formulation.


1Civil liberty and self-rule require some segregation of individuals into exclusive, independently governed communities, and these communities will enact individual governance of many resources. People value privacy and congregation with like-minded persons. A proprietor’s right forcibly to exclude other persons from a resource is a right to monopolize the resource, and the value of this right to the proprietor is a monopoly rent. Precise, quantitative definitions of “rent” vary, and economists distinguish rents from profits for example. Acknowledging these ambiguities, this article does not precisely quantify rents associated with particular resources. I only assume that rents flow to authorities ruling who owns what.

3Locke asserts property in natural resources made more valuable by a person’s labor with the proviso that persons leave as much and as good for others. Rothbard accepts Locke’s labor principle but rejects the proviso. He also accepts an inalienable right to liberty, thus rejecting the validity of contracts for specific performance. Block accepts the labor principle but rejects the proviso and inalienable rights. Kinsella rejects the labor principle and the proviso.

4Historically libertarian assumptions are many and varied. Libertarians associated with “left” assert rights beyond self-ownership for example. Recently, “thick” libertarians, asserting freedom from discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation, are often associated with “left”; however, this article focuses narrowly on conventional property rights and monopoly rents. For the purposes of this article, “left” describes a thinner formulation of libertarian justice rather than a thicker one.

5A Georgist tax on individually owned property is permissible in a free community. A community may subdivide its land into individually owned parcels, based on Lockean homesteading, but require individual owners to pay a fee, reflecting the value of undeveloped land, to maintain common resources like roads and parks.

The assumptions designated “left” in this article do not imply a Georgist tax. An individual respects exclusive property rights on any terms also acceptable to other individuals constituting a community. A free community need not enact individual property rights at all.

A free community may also require an individual owner only to respect the exclusive rights of other individual owners, with all community resources assigned to some individual member by Lockean or similar standards. Within this community, left libertarian property resembles right libertarian property, but individuals possess these exclusive rights only because members of the community consent to them.

6An alienable right is transferable, and an individual entitled to exercise a right typically may transfer it. Conventional property in a parcel of land is an alienable right, so the owner of land may assign rights of ownership to another person(s). An inalienable right is not transferable. For most libertarians, left and right, self-ownership is an inalienable right, so an individual may not sell himself into slavery for example.

In this article, left libertarian self-ownership is a right to exit a community at will, and this right is essentially the only inalienable right. Any resource that an individual may exclude from other individuals is subject to a community’s standards of propriety, and only a member of the community may exercise the right. Exiting a community forfeits all property in the community and ends any obligation to respect the community’s standards including debts to the community or its members. A non-member has no rights within a community, and a community has no authority over a non-member.

Chandran Kukathas formulates individual liberty in terms of a right to exit a community in The Liberal Archipelago. I attribute this article’s formulation of “left libertarianism” to Kukathas, but his right to exit seems less absolute. In my way of thinking, the right to exit rules out capital punishment and requires a community to release a member from punitive imprisonment, for any crime, as long as the member will forfeit all rights within the community and another community will accept him on its terms. Effectively, criminals may choose their prisons. Kukathas seems to rule out capital punishment, but he defends multi-culturalism very broadly and may not rule other punitive measures out of a liberal community.

7Coasean transaction costs may prevent free individuals organizing themselves as a left libertarian imagines. Individuals are free to vote with their feet, but searching for a community best reflecting one’s preferences is costly, and founding a new community can be very costly; however, the existence of these costs does not imply any capacity of a more central authority to lower them.