The basis of politics is rights – whenever a society and government upholds them or not. This is the fundamental distinction. How one arrives to the concept of rights is therefore a crucial issue – one cannot fully understand politics if one does not understand how we arrive at it. I have already written a short text on this subject, but it is definitively a positive thing to explore it in more detail, like any other deduction.
Of course, since ethics is the basis of politics, I have to start from proper ethical premises, that is, egoism. Someone who would question this premise can consult my texts on this subject. The point of this article is to discuss the link between egoism and libertarianism.
To understand this link, we need to understand the nature of egoism as a system. The egoist system of values is a hierarchy of values, with life as the prime value.
The fact that it is a hierarchy, like any other ethical system, is easy to see. Eating is a primordial and almost infinitely positive value. However, this does not justify eating fatally poisonous food, because life is the prime value – it is infinitely valuable on the hierarchy, and therefore more than eating. Even if the food in question was the best caviar you could ever buy, it could not make eating it any more good mathematically speaking, because life is higher on the hierarchy of values.
Also, the fact that all other values are derived from life – that is, survival and flourishing – is the basis in elaborating this hierarchy. For example, to say that rationality is a positive value is simply an expansion of saying “life is the prime value”. Rationality qua value is not a redefinition, but a detail of the main point.
Keeping this nature in mind, we must now examine what in the study of politics points the way to an objective deduction. There are two main ways to examine the problem, and I will show that they are complementary.
Method 1 : from values to rights
The first, more direct way, is to discuss what the role of a government is. The government is the primary concern of politics, because it is the central authority thru which general policies can be enforced. Without a central authority, such policies would be at the mercy of individual will. We may desire this to happen to a certain extent : there is nothing inherently wrong with individual freedom, and indeed it is extremely desirable. However, we cannot speak of general policies without talking about a government.
The role of human governments is to be the catalyst and promoter of individual ethics. Initially, governments existed in order to favour the appearance of trade and dampen down wanton violence, two major flaws of anarchic systems. But this desire is based on the principle that each must pursue his own interest thru trading and living free from violence. A group which believes in sacrifice for an ideal or concept, for example, will assemble in different, more authoritarian ways.
In the case of rational philosophy, we already know that the prime value is life. Therefore, how might a government protect people’s lives ? By using laws to prevent murder from happening, and imposing penalties on this action in order to prevent its reoccurrence. This is what we call the right of self-ownership.
Why self-ownership instead of life alone ? Both may be justifiable from this premise, because both protect the person’s life. However, rational values are derived from life as the prime value, and that is how we obtain the ethics of survival and flourishing. Likewise, politics must be conductive to the ethics derived from life, not only life itself.
Therefore self-ownership is the prime right – the very definition of freedom, in fact. From this right are derived all other rights. The two most important are action and property. This is because ownership implies control. One who cannot act in a manner desired cannot be said to own oneself. The same is true of the right of holding property, which is merely a species of action.
But to say that the right of action exists adds nothing more to the initial proposition that the right of self-ownership exists – it is merely more detail which helps us in our calculations. For example, we can say that the right of free speech exists because we have the right of property (owning communication means) and the right of action (being able to use them to communicate).
The nature of ethics is that it applies to all humans, since all humans are subject to values. By deduction, the same is true of rights. But if this is true, then everyone has inalienable rights, with the consequence that one’s rights stop where another one’s rights begin.
The relation of rights to reality is that rights are principles that dictate how a society can become optimal, just as the laws of gravity dictate the influence of matter on other matter.
Method 2 : from the rationality of values to non-intervention
The second method, advocated by Peikoff and other Objectivists, is the derivation from rationality. While this method may seem backwards, it is actually the other side of the coin. This will become soon apparent.
Once again we start from objective premises, that is, that rationality must guide our actions. To act in one’s interest and for one’s survival, reason is necessary (while this is a generality, it is true as far as reason is completely non-random). Rationality is the epistemic basis for our analysis of values. It is tautological to say that the use of reason is fundamental for the exercise of rational ethics in society.
But the use of reason implies, once again as far as it is non-random, the opportunity to choose. If humans were omniscient, we would not need reason, and therefore we would not need choice – everything would be strictly delimitated by everyone’s mind. Another example of this is the following : if there was a god, then this god would be in an ideal position to enforce optimal ethical behaviour, or guidelines of optimal ethical behaviour, on everyone.
It is obviously not the case that omniscience exists, in humans or otherwise. Rationality requires the exercise of free will, and by extension a directed thought process.
How therefore to regulate the relations between people, which is the subject of politics ? We must continue to examine what we have just deduced about rationality. Once again, we are not omniscient. If we were, we would not need reason, and the question of how to regulate society would be moot. The root of the question is the inevitable conflicts between directed thought processes of different individuals.
But there are only three ways to resolve conflicts : by everyone agreeing to disagree in a responsible way (either by individual action or agreement), persuasion, or by force and fraud. Obviously the manners most conductive to a harmonious social life are the first two. But beyond this, the use of force renders reason irrelevant. In other words, if I am not free to examine all possible options and make an enlightened choice, then my reason is proportionally rendered irrelevant.
The type of society which is more favorable to the use of reason, therefore, is a society which endeavours to halt initiations of force against citizens or their actions, in order to maximize individual choice. This society must then adopt natural rights as its principles.
Because this results aims to protect the faculty of choice, I call it the Choice Criteria. As for rights, choices are a property of all, and therefore the faculty of choice of one person stops where the faculty of choice of another person begins.
Differences between these two principles
We see that these principles, natural rights and the Choice Criteria, lead to the same practical conclusion, but with a different focus. The focus of the reasoning leading to natural rights is the role of society in fulfilling individual intent, while the focus of the reasoning leading to Choice Criteria is the relations between individuals. Therefore natural rights are arrived at by thinking at a societal level, Choice Criteria at a relational level.
This fundamental difference helps us understand the differences between the two principles. The Choice Criteria is more extensive because it starts at a more fundamental level. Natural rights are correct but take the point of view of how society should act as an internal entity : it does not take into account, for example, international trade. But since international trade is a relationship between citizens, we see that it is covered by the Choice Criteria. I think this attribute makes it a serious secondary position to anyone who follows natural rights.
We also find, by using the Choice Criteria, that sociolibertarianism (communautarian libertarianism) is vindicated as opposed to other libertarian positions. While most libertarian systems presume the existence of a monolythic system of government and commerce, the multitude of possible policing communities and commerce structures in sociolibertarianism permits to maximize individual choice, within a context of non-initiation of force.
Most libertarians would agree that the role of government is to promote the harmony and cooperation of rational interests and individual action, thru the use of natural rights. The Choice Criteria is a tool that permits us to extend this vision.