After much thought and debate about this topic over the last 25 or so years, here is my attempt at a lean, concise, precise definition of what a libertarian is:
A libertarian is a person who believes that the invasion of the borders of (trespass against) others’ bodies or owned external scarce resources, i.e. property (with property allocations determined in accordance with Lockean homesteading rules and contractual transfer rules), is unjustified, because they (for whatever reason) prefer or value grundnorms of peace, prosperity, and cooperation and who have enough honesty, consistency, and economic literacy to recognize that the libertarian assignment of property rules is necessary to achieve these grundnorms.
Such a person, if he is consistent, also cannot help but recognize that the state, being an agency of institutionalized aggression, is inherently criminal and illegitimate.
Note what this does not say: It does not say that the libertarian necessarily believes all aggression is immoral, but rather that it is unjustified; it does not imply that rights are a “subset” of morals. It also does not say why the person values peace, prosperity and cooperation and favors it above interpersonal violent conflict. It also does not make the common mistake of interpreting the libertarian-Lockean property allocation rule as requiring one to prove title all the way back to the very first use of the resource; rather, it says that whoever has the best claim to a disputed resource has a property right in it (is its “proper” owner), and that as between any two claimants, the one having an earlier claim (use) of the property has the better claim. This does not require title to be traced back to the beginning of time but only to the earliest time needed to defeat any actual or potential claimants; though it implies that someone who can trace title back to the first appropriation has the best possible claim of all (unless title has been assigned by contract). Note also that although the libertarian rule is the Lockean rule this does not imply Locke’s reasoning in justifying his homesteading rule was correct—in particular it does not imply that Locke was right to say that labor is owned or that labor-ownership is the reason why first possession of a resource is sufficient to establish property rights in the resource.
Canadian libertarian Michael McConkey has an interesting fictional exchange between himself and Socrates up at My Dinner with Socrates:
The other day I met this sandal-wearing, hipster dude who thought he had all the answers (and questions), but I set him straight when it came to the morality of the state. I thought you might enjoy reading a transcript of our dinner conversation.
Here is an edited version of a note I sent him about this piece.
Not bad, but I think you go astray by saying creation is a source of ownership. It’s not. This is the mistake people make that leads them to support intellectual property. In fact the only source of ownership is homesteading or original appropriation: finding some unowned thing and appropriating it. And, this implies that there is a second way to own something: by contractual transfer of title from a previous owner. That is it.
It is true that you can create wealth or value by production. But this just means to transform (with creativity and labor) something you already own. To produce you have to already own the thing you rearrange.
Creation is a source of wealth. Not of ownership or property rights.
Likewise, your comment here:
We don’t just use up our life – perhaps we do that when we go for a hike, say – but property is an enduring embodiment of our life. The tomato I grow in my back yard, the book I write, the money I am paid by an employer for the productive work I provide, are all embodiments of my life. My finite time, energy and attention are literally embodied in these things and stuff: tomatoes, books, money, etc.
is imprecise and overly metaphorical. The use of “literally” is wrong. I know what you are getting at but this is not rigorous argument. If I steal from you the loaf of bread you have baked, it is wrong becuase it is your property (or more precisely, you have a property right in the loaf of bread). It’s only a metaphorical way of looking at it to say that I have stolen your “labor”. It’s just literally not true. You don’t own your labor; it is not “in” the bread. Labor is just a type of action. You don’t own your labor any more than you own your actions or your memories or your tendency to procrastinate.
In fact, what strikes Conway as a counterintuitive implication of the homesteading ethic, and then leads him to reject it, can easily be interpreted quite differently. It is true, as Conway says, that this ethic would allow for the possibility of the entire world’s being homesteaded. What about newcomers in this situation who own nothing but their physical bodies? Cannot the homesteaders restrict access to their property for these newcomers and would this not be intolerable? I fail to see why. (Empirically, of course, the problem does not exist: if it were not for governments restricting access to unowned land, there would still be plenty of empty land around!) These newcomers normally come into existence somewhere as children born to parents who are owners or renters of land (if they came from Mars, and no one wanted them here, so what?; they assumed a risk in coming, and if they now have to return, tough luck!). If the parents do not provide for the newcomers, they are free to search the world over for employers, sellers, or charitable contributors, and a society ruled by the homesteading ethic would be, as Conway admits, the most prosperous one possible! If they still could not find anyone willing to employ, support, or trade with them, why not ask what’s wrong with them, instead of Conway’s feeling sorry for them? Apparently they must be intolerably unpleasant fellows and should shape up, or they deserve no other treatment.
I seem to recall Rothbard saying something similar, something to the effect that in a free society we could of course expect the misfortunate and poor to receive charity from others, unless they were so unpleasant that they could find no one who could help them, in which case this is not the fault of the free market … anyone remember this?
Also, the Italian translation of my “What Libertarianism Is” will be included in “Parte Terza: Diritto Naturale e Teoria Politica,” of the forthcoming L’Anarcocapitalismo: Epistemologia, Economia e Teoria Politica [Anarcho-Capitalism: Epistemology, Economics and Political Theory], part of the Nuova Civiltà delle Macchine monograph series edited by Dario Antiseri (one of the major living Italian philosophers). I was asked to prepare an abstract of this piece for the book, which is:
Concepts and ideas such as individual rights, property rights, the free market, capitalism, justice, and the nonaggression principle are not defining characteristics of libertarianism for various reasons–most of them are based on property rights. All political philosophies have some view of property rights; what is distinctive about libertarianism is its particular property assignment rules. This article describes libertarianism’s particular property assignment rules in two cases: for human bodies, the rule is “self-ownership”; in the case of external scarce resources, the property assignment rule is based on Lockean homesteading principles). The article explores how and why these libertarian property assignment rules arise from and are related to the purpose of property rights, which is to permit conflict-free use of scarce resources. The libertarian view is that self-ownership and Lockean homesteading of external resources are the only property assignment rules compatible with more basic grundorms (basic norms of civilized men) such as justice, peace, prosperity, cooperation, and conflict-avoidance, which are adopted in part because of empathy. The article agues that civilized man may be defined as he who seeks justification for the use of interpersonal violence. A consistent application of the basic civilized grundnorms shows that only the libertarian norms, and its non-aggression principle, can be justified. Thus, libertarianism may be said to be the political philosophy that consistently favors social rules aimed at promoting peace, prosperity, and cooperation. It holds that the only rules that satisfy the civilized grundnorms are the self-ownership principle and the Lockean homesteading principle, applied as consistently as possible.
(Other translations of my writings are collected here.)