6.2.2.1 Degrees of Individual Liberty

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6221.htm)

There is a range of opinions on how far the principle of individual freedom can be implemented:

  • Two concepts which are foundation stones of individualism are individual liberty and property rights.  John Locke is credited with having influenced the American Declaration of Independence with this much-quoted assertion of natural law in his Second Treatise of Civil Government:

“To understand political power right, and derive it from its original, we must consider, what state all men are naturally in, and that is, a state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other man.”  (chap. 2, section 4)

  • A more extreme, libertarian, position is that tax is morally wrong because it is an exercise of government power over the individual – as argued by Milton Friedman for example.  He was a powerful advocate of neoliberalism (3.5.9.1) and strongly influenced Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.  In the interview entitled Living Within Our Means, cited earlier in this book (4.2.4.6), he summarised the libertarian view on tax as an infringement of personal liberty:

“If I want to do good with other people’s money I’d first have to take it away from them.  That means that the welfare state philosophy of doing good with other people’s money, at its very bottom, is a philosophy of violence and coercion.  It’s against freedom, because I have to use force to get the money.  In the second place, very few people spend other people’s money as carefully as they spend their own.”

  • The most extreme expression of libertarianism is the complete elimination of the State, as advocated by Murray Rothbard in The Ethics of Liberty for example:

“All of the services commonly thought to require the State – from the coining of money to police protection to the development of law in defense of the rights of person and property – can be and have been supplied far more efficiently and certainly more morally by private persons.  The State is in no sense required by the nature of man; quite the contrary.” (Part III, Section 24)

Rothbard provided a self-consistent logical defence for having no State at all – in terms of political authority – but he did not argue for complete anarchy, which is a term used in this book to describe an absence of any agreed rules or governance structures.

  • Some activist anarchists have charted a path of destruction in an attempt to bring down society; in doing so, they have attempted to impose their own will upon others – which is ironical, given that they reject all forms of authority. They themselves, however, acknowledge this absurdity in a kind of manifesto: The Anarchist Myth.
  • Robert Nozick argued for what is perhaps the most widely accepted form of libertarianism: the “minimal state”, which is solely a “protection agency” to protect persons and property.[1]

What all these writers have in common is the desire for freedom, especially from government.  All, except the anarchists, also emphasise the need to defend property rights.

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[1] Robert Nozick, in chap.  5 of his book Anarchy, State and Utopia, argued that, given that persons and property require protection, people would require the services of protection agencies – which would combine in practice to form what he referred to as the “minimal state”.  In the introduction to chap.  7, he writes:

“The minimal state is the most extensive state that can be justified.  Any state more extensive violates people’s rights.”

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy published a description of Robert Nozick’s Political Philosophy in July 2014, which was updated in June 2018 and was available in July 2018 at https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/nozick-political/.