The signers of the Declaration of Independence proposed as self-evident that governments were created to protect the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to their people and that when governments became hostile to these rights, the people have not only the right but the obligation to cast it down and reinstitute some new government more to their liking.
It is not hard to imagine why they proclaimed these things: they were attempting to justify rebellion against their sovereign and establishment of a new government securing their own power. When the War for Independence was won and the American government formed, most of these men expressed very different sentiments toward rebellion.
There is a vagueness in this now liberal theory of government. When exactly does a government become too despotic to tolerate? Is it after the first notable outrage? after taxes are raised too high—how high? after a few months or years of degradation and oppression? The theory is silent, but the signers of the Declaration were not: they followed this hifalutin talk of rights and rebellion with a very precise list of grievances. When is it permissible to rebel against the king? When he has done all these specific terrible things to you. At any other times? The Declaration is wisely silent on the matter. Its purpose was merely to justify a particular act at a particular moment in time. Woodrow Wilson put it best: “If you want to understand the real Declaration of Independence, do not repeat the preface.”
President Wilson is getting an increasingly bad rap these days, and deservedly so, but his thoughts on the Declaration are actually quite reasonable. Many libertarians these days foam at the mouth when someone dares to question whether a mere paragraph of vague principles—none more precise in application than “Honor thy father and mother”—is adequate to be the foundation of political thought and practice now and for all time. Not even the Jews believed that a mere paragraph was sufficient, which is why they had several books filled with practically focused laws. “Some citizens of this country have never got beyond the Declaration of Independence,” Wilson remarked, and he was certainly right.
Libertarians, having exalted the preface of the Declaration at least to the level of the Decalogue, possess a remarkably crude theory of government. “Life, Liberty, and Property” is their preferred mantra, but the idea is simple: the government should protect these things and only protect these things. Any act of government over and above this bare minimum is tolerable overreach at best and unspeakable oppression at worst.
This is a crude theory because it is based purely on the slogan “Life, Liberty, and Property.” Just what do each of these words mean in practice? Does the right to life mean that abortion should be outlawed or does the right to liberty mean that a woman may choose whether or not to carry and give birth to a child? Are people of different localities to decide this and other questions according to their own particular judgments? But if there is a single, correct answer, then those localities which decide wrongly are oppressing their people. So who is to decide what the correct application of libertarianism is and impose it upon the unenlightened statists of the world?
Someone wise and learned, mighty to overcome opposition, and possessing authority over all matters everyone’s life, a vast power which chooses which of Locke’s or Mill’s or Hayek’s libertarianism shall reign supreme and potentially intervenes to prevent everything from murder to spanking.
It seems the theory could do with some work.
Hans-Hermann Hoppe offers a path out of this predicament, but one which ultimately leads away from libertarianism. Hoppe identifies the state as his enemy rather than government per se, and his definition of the state is simply a compulsory, territorial monopolist of arbitration services. From this monopoly all the other unpleasant aspects of the state—taxation, regulation, conscription, etc.—are all derived: if you aren’t the monopolist in arbitration, then these other powers are impossible to acquire, and likewise if you want those powers, you need the judicial monopoly.
Hoppe’s theory of property is very similar to Locke’s, but it is descriptive at least as much as it is normative. There are strong similarities between Lockean legal theory and both the common and civil laws. Hoppe suggests that this was not by accident: Lockean theory was instantiated in practice because it made good law, good law being law which promotes peaceful human cooperation. Thus, Hoppe’s opposition to the state is pragmatic as well as moral.
Something very important has happened: we’ve shifted from taking some abstract notion of morality and trying to impose it upon the world and combined it with taking worldly ends and bringing them to fulfillment. Deontology and utilitarianism are fused; there is no conflict between the crassly material and ethereal morality. All that matters is human flourishing. That which is good promotes human flourishing, and what promotes human flourishing is good.
So, what’s human flourishing? Hoppe doesn’t speak in these terms—it sounds a lot more like Aristotle—and so he doesn’t have much to say on this matter. But he does realize one crucial fact: man is a politikon zoon, literally a “city-dwelling animal.” Humans live not as free-floating atoms but as members of communities.
Unfortunately, Hoppe is still a libertarian and so is limited by libertarian language. Liberalism emerged and progressed by claiming that communities have no claim on their members’ loyalty, and one of its main rhetorical techniques was to banish community from its speech. Hoppe is stuck talking about restrictive covenants. Still, he argues forcefully that a community must be able to exclude people it deems dangerous or disruptive. If a community cannot regulate its membership—its borders, so to speak—then it is not truly a community, and so its members are deprived of a crucial element of human flourishing.
If we want to keep going with this idea, keep talking about community, we have to look beyond the walls of libertarianism. Aristotle is a good author to read, but so are men like Carl Schmitt and Alasdair MacIntyre, archenemies of liberalism.
It seems that in trying to fix libertarianism, Hoppe has actually opened the gates to its foes. And we who have followed his line of thinking may no longer call ourselves true liberals if we refused to accept the fundamental political dogma that the individual rather than the community is the only important element of society. However, if we keep going, and swallow any misgivings about no longer being liberals, we can develop a new and robust notion of the purpose of government.
Good government promotes social trust, bad government undermines social trust. Social trust, assabiyah, group feeling: these are all terms denoting the same thing. A high-trust society will have a great deal of cohesion; people will interact without much conflict and engage in collective action, whether building a skyscraper or raising the next generation. If people can trust each other, they don’t need to worry about whether they’ll be robbed if they leave the house or if their children will be mistreated at the neighbor’s house or if they’ll be assaulted when they go use public restrooms. This lack of worry allows them to focus on other, more productive endeavors.
At the same time, however, members of a high-trust society are willing to pay high taxes, to submit to regulations for the public good, to support a welfare state and expansive public services, to send their children to public school, to be conscripted during times of war, and in general to respect their social superiors. Libertarians oppose all of these things, claiming that people would be better off without them. Indeed, it may very well be that a high-trust society would be better off without so many of these things, but in their zeal to tear down the state, libertarians are perfectly happy to undermine social trust as well. After all, many don’t even recognize that it exists.