It may seem counterintuitive, but liberty does not mean anyone can do whatever they wish. The qualification usually goes like this: you may do what you want (the freedom-dimension), but may not violate the same right of others (the constraint-dimension). This is known as the law of equal freedom. Granted, this has probably become so clichéd and overstated in libertarian and liberal democratic circles that the qualification is afforded significantly less weight than the prior aspect of freedom. Five minutes into any debate with a non-libertarian would have them loudly and passionately declare “we can’t just let everyone do what they want!”, completely forgetting the constraint-dimension of liberty.
With that in mind, it is often difficult to determine exactly what constitutes a ‘right violating act’. This is especially problematic when it comes to, for example, omissions and threats. In my own experience, I notice the confusion about the constraint-dimension of liberty when people gasp and accuse me of hypocrisy when I speak in favor of suppressing socialist activity. “I thought you were a libertarian!” is one of the usual exclamations thrown my way. How could I, as a minarchist who believes the State should not regulate opinion or expression, possibly call for a ban on socialist speech and organizing?
But it has become so common sensical and logical to me that socialist (naturally including fascism and communism, etc.) political activity is fundamentally contrary to the principle of non-aggression, that I often forget that most people don’t exactly see it in the same light as I do. In fact, those who most often condemn my view on the matter are my fellow libertarians, who insist I have gone down a slippery slope of ad hoc censorship. So I hope this article will serve as a sufficient point of reference for future encounters of this sort.
It is appropriate to start by examining the minarchist and libertarian position on what justifies government action or intervention. The most common view, shared by Objectivists and most libertarians, is that the State is responsible for protecting life, liberty and property. There is no better source in my opinion than Frederic Bastiat’s The Law, a radically classical liberal work from 1850, to examine the proper role of the State and the legal system.
Our rights do not come from the law. Indeed, it is one of the most important theories of classical liberalism that asserts our rights accrue to us from nature and not from the political considerations of other people. Bastiat says that the law was created and governments established merely to act as collective tools in the protection of our natural individual rights (p2). True to the tradition, Bastiat says the only thing the law has a right to do is secure persons, liberties and properties (p3). But he realizes the law has gone beyond its legitimate bounds and now even stand to oppose them. The law “has converted plunder into a right, that it may protect it, and lawful defense into a crime, that it may punish it” (p4). The law’s goal should be “to oppose the fatal tendency to plunder with the powerful obstacle of collective force; that all its measures should be in favor of property, and against plunder” (p6).
My favorite and most often quoted part of The Law is the following (p6):
“When, therefore, plunder is organized by law, for the profit of those who perpetrate it, all the plundered classes tend, either by peaceful or revolutionary means, to enter in some way into the manufacturing of laws. These classes, according to the degree of enlightenment at which they have arrived, may propose to themselves two very different ends, when they thus attempt the attainment of their political rights; either they may wish to put an end to lawful plunder, or they may desire to take part in it.”
Bastiat goes on (p7):
“It would be impossible, therefore, to introduce into society a greater change and a greater evil than this – the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder.”
What’s further important is that Bastiat acknowledges that the law cannot fight socialism (as legal plunder) if the basis or foundation of the legal system itself is rooted in socialism (p15). Applied to the contemporary context, national constitutions come to mind as the foundations of our law.
Bastiat in fact makes my point for me concerning the illegitimate nature of socialist activism and the role of the law in repressing it (p17):
“When a portion of wealth passes out of the hands of him who has acquired it, without his consent, and without compensation, to him who has not created it, whether by force or by artifice, I say that property is violated, that plunder is perpetrated. I say that this is exactly what the law ought to repress always and everywhere.”
“[I] am not contending against their right to invent social combinations, to propagate them, to recommend them, and to try them upon themselves, at their own expense and risk; but I do dispute their right to impose them upon us through the medium of the law, that is, by force and by public taxes.” (own emphasis)
With the proper role of government in mind, we’ll need to consider the nature of socialism next. In order to make this article as relevant as possible, it would be best to rely on the South African context – and what better place to determine the intention of the socialists than the only unashamedly socialist party – the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). In particular it should be noted that various branches of the African National Congress (ANC), especially its Youth League, have adopted manifestos very similar to that of the EFF. The ANC itself has been careful not to adopt a too strong socialist position, although it has been leaning further to the left as the EFF has been acquiring some of its former members.
The EFF’s Founding Manifesto reads (Preamble):
“Multinational and private ownership of South Africa’s commanding heights of the economy should be discontinued in order to stimulate State-led and aided industrial development.”
And (Character of the EFF):
“[T]he EFF pillars for economic emancipation are the following:
– Expropriation of South Africa’s land without compensation for equal redistribution in use.
– Nationalisation of mines, banks, and other strategic sectors of the economy, without compensation.
– Free quality education, healthcare, houses, and sanitation.”
“Economic Freedom Fighters will contest political power, because we are guided by the firm belief that we need political power in order to capture the state and then transform the economy for the emancipation of black South Africans, especially Africans.”
“The state should, through its legislative capacity transfer all land to the state, which will administer and use land for sustainable-development purposes. This transfer should happen without compensation, and should apply to all South Africans, black and white.”
“The ownership of minerals beneath the soil could in effect entail the discontinuation of total private ownership of production means in the production of mineral wealth in South Africa.”
My exclusive use of the EFF in this respect should not confuse you. Socialist and Marxist-Leninist parties across the world will generally follow a relatively similar program or ideology, although they do present it in a far more diplomatic and polite fashion. However, I am only interested in the substance of socialism, and not its form. Whether you say “the minimum wage must be raised to $15!” or “the land must be expropriated!” you are substantively saying the same thing: private property must be violated. Questions of degree are certainly relevant, but I do not want only large violations of property rights to be prohibited, but all.
There should be no doubt in your mind that the program of the EFF is a clear and unequivocal intention to establish a system of legal plunder, as Bastiat would phrase it. They say private ownership should be ‘discontinued’ as if the State has the legitimate authority to make such a decision. Bastiat in fact opens The Law by saying our right to property is not bestowed upon us by the State or the law, but exists a priori. The State and the law exist to protect our private property.
The EFF states that the State should transfer all privately owned land to the State by way of legislative measures. The EFF being a political party, clearly intends to just that if it democratically acquires control of Parliament or perhaps a provincial legislature. This has been the EFF’s intention from its foundation.
Most libertarian authors agree that it is not only the force itself that runs contrary to the non-aggression principle, but also the threat of force. Indeed, this is logical. If you receive a call from a co-worker in whose place you were recently promoted, where he declares that he is going to come and murder you before throwing down the phone, you are justified in stopping him: either by resorting to the police or preparing yourself to act in defense when he arrives.
If some known murderers organize and establish a group dedicated to activism in favor of murder, it would likewise be legitimate for that group to be forcefully abolished. If they campaign in the streets for the murder of specific individuals or genocide of ethnic groups, it would logically be deemed that they have already committed the crime they intend. The Weimar Republic which existed prior to the Nazi regime, had a liberal constitution which respected political activism. Groups such as the Nazi Party and their Communist foes should have been nipped at the bud. They had already initiated force in the form of a clear threat of force. It was only due to the apparent blinders of the legal system of the day that no substantive action was taken.
Certainly, it should not matter whether it is decided democratically or by way of a unilateral decision by a despot that property rights should be violated. The nature of rights inherently imply that they are not cumulative. The mere fact that 5 people in room each have a right to liberty, does not mean that their liberty has been multiplied and thus they are allowed a greater degree of liberty than the 6th person. Democracy is only preferable and justifiable to the extent that it takes place within the framework of the State’s legitimate scope and mandate, as Bastiat illustrates.
Now it is imperative that I should not be misinterpreted. I am not advocating that the moral-political convictions of the State should be forced upon anyone. I am simply seeing the crystallized principle in libertarian (i.e. peaceful) theory – a prohibition on force and the threat of force – to its logical conclusion. It would not be allowed in a libertarian society for known rapists to establish a National Council for the Advancement of Non-Consensual Sex. It would not be allowed in a libertarian society for fraudsters to establish an Association for the Dishonest and Fraudulent Use of Clients’ Money.
These would not be allowed because the essence of libertarianism is the prohibition on initiatory force and the threat thereof. Campaigning in favor of force is a threat of force! It follows then logically that socialism, communism, fascism and any other -ism which advocates the deprivation of property rights cannot exist in a libertarian society. These are not instances of run-of-the-mill ‘political expression’ but are unequivocal statements of intention to commit a crime: institution of legal plunder – theft.
What does this mean in practice? It means nothing more than extending the already existent rules of law which prohibit individuals from threatening to violate the right to life (murder, rape), to property, and applying those roles within the political process itself. As a natural consequence thereof socialist activism will be outlawed in the same way that activism in favor of murder and rape are obviously outlawed. As Bastiat says, socialists should be free to try their fantasy-esque experiment on themselves and on those who wish to subject themselves to it. But they cannot compel third parties by force of law to be a part of their unjust, authoritarian social engineering project. Unfortunately, in the South African context, a whole new constitutional order will be needed, since the Constitution is the biggest instrument of legal plunder and thus itself an illegitimate statute.