Ron Paul, Murray Rothbard, and the loss of freedom

Libertarian and conservative critics of progressives seem to endlessly repeat the same refrain that progressives are opposed to freedom and liberty. This generally baffles progressives as they see themselves as the defenders of civil liberties such as free speech, marriage equality, and religious liberty. Listing examples of the liberties they defend does nothing to quell criticism from libertarians, however, as the concepts of liberty that libertarians hold is quite different from the concepts of liberty progressives hold.

For libertarians, all liberty stems from property.  In short, if you have little property, you are not entitled to liberty. Murray Rothbard, who wrote the introduction to Ron Paul’s book, puts this idea quite succinctly in The Ethics of Liberty, saying, “Human rights, when not put in terms of property rights, turn out to be vague and contradictory, causing liberals to weaken those rights on behalf of ‘public policy’ or the ‘public good.’” In other words, when progressives seek to ensure that all people enjoy the same rights, Rothbard and other libertarians claim this actually denies human rights as it causes some individuals to lose some of their property.

So, your right to free speech, for example, depends on your owning enough property to exercise your speech. Otherwise, it depends on the goodwill of some property owner to permit you to speak. As Rothbard puts it, “There is no such thing as a separate ‘right to free speech’; there is only a man’s property right: the right to do as he wills with his own or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners.” And, of course, libertarians feel that all property should be privately held.

So, when Occupy Wall Street protesters are chanting “Whose streets? Our Streets!”, they are going directly against the beliefs of libertarians. Protesters have been evicted around the country on the basis that they are on “privately held” public spaces. You can try protesting conditions in Foxconn plants outside an Apple store to test how much freedom you have on privately held property. Progressives seek to establish publicly held property to ensure that everyone (or as many as possible) has an opportunity to exercise the right to free speech. The same applies to public airwaves and Internet bandwidth.

If you want to be able to speak publicly, you must be a property owner. To have a significant voice, you must own a great deal of property. When the Supreme Court ruled that unlimited political contributions were a matter of free speech, this is really the underlying theme to their proclamation. When George Carlin declared that the owners of this country were the only ones with any freedom, some regarded him as a crazy conspiracy theorist.

Philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously helped distinguish between two kinds of liberty. Negative liberty is the freedom from interference from others. Positive liberty is the ability to act in the way one chooses. Progressives hold that liberty is meaningless to a person who has no means to act or make choices. Libertarians hold that all liberty is negative (freedom from coercion) and all rights are negative (no one is obligated to ensure that you have positive liberty).

When libertarians and progressives talk to one another, they should at least try to understand how the other is using basic terms such as rights and liberty. As for me, I completely understand why wealthy people would be libertarian. I find it much harder to understand why people who have little property (and that is most of us) would embrace these libertarian ideas.

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