Libertarianism seems to be collapsing. Even those of us who still feel a kind of emotional affinity with the philosophy (I’m sure I’m not alone) have come to admit that as a political movement, libertarianism is unfortunately a dead-end.
But this does not mean that the ideals of libertarianism — life, liberty, and property — are doomed. Clearly, we have achieved them to a great degree, it is just a matter of deducing how. The argument has been that Kant, Locke, Mill, and Smith — the Enlightenment sources of Libertarianism, and the bedrock on which Mises, Rothbardt, and Hoppe have built — were the source of our peace and prosperity. But a closer examination of history reveals that the seeds of our present prosperity pre-date the enlightenment. More importantly, recent events show that the wheel of history doesn’t stop turning, and that our society — which is more ‘enlightened’ than it was in the past — may be on the precipice of another collapse. In short, the Enlightenment was not the source of the secured ideals we’ve managed so far.
So what is the source?
Philosopher Curt Doolittle set out figure out what it was that set the West apart from other civilizations, and Propertarianism was his consequent theory.
To begin with, the term is a bit of a misnomer. Arrived at prior to the refinement, it sounds like an allusion to a moralizing axiom, like the non-aggression principle; perhaps an imperative to hold property as sacred, or something like that.
In reality, Propertarianism is nothing of the kind, being in many ways a rejection of moralizing of any kind. Rather, Propertarianism is a theory of the origins of law and culture, particularly in the West. It is also a theory of the origins of our concept of “truth,” a subject of much debate in recent months:
Language evolved to justify (morality), negotiate (deceive), and rally and shame (gossip), and only tangentially and late to describe (truth). Truth as we understand it is an invention and an unnatural one – which is why it is unique to the west, and why it has taken philosophers so long to understand it. However, westerners evolved a military epistemology because they relied upon self-financing warriors voluntarily participating, as well as the jury and truth telling.
If we were to summarize Propertarianism in a few paragraphs, it would be the following:
Different groups of people have tried out and adopted different survival strategies, with emphasis on different traits and institutions. Agricultural societies, herding societies, hunter-gatherer societies, and industrial societies all naturally lean towards particular sets of values and traits. The West evolved from a raiding/conquering survival strategy, in which men voluntarily banded together into war-bands to go out take resources from the outside world.
Unlike a monarchic military, a voluntary “militia” style of organization like this requires a high degree of trust, and so promises of the kind necessary to make this model work (“I get half, you get half”) took on a very important role in these raiding societies. They became the basis of the modern contract, and also, the fundamental importance in telling the truth.
In other societies, truth may be of less importance than other values. Social harmony (China), honor (Arabia), or respect (Japan), and other priorities sometimes take precedence. From the view of a philosopher, there is no objective basis for declaring a priori that one of these values is better than another, or of less importance than truth.
However, the Western (Indo-European) emphasis on truth and dependence on contracts led to the creation of the common law tradition, the institution of trial by jury, and the peculiar concept of “testimony.” Testimony is not merely true speech, but warrantied speech. It is speech with skin in the game, wherein the speaker is held to account if his words are false. Trial by jury created a relatively objective means of ensuring that contracts were enforced, in which personal pull and favors could not tilt the judicial scales. And the common law tradition weaponized it all. Whenever a trial was decided upon, the ruling of the court established a precedent, which became the new accepted reality.
In the words of Doolittle, the Western common law tradition and the truth-telling on which it was based “weaponized the OODA Loop.” The West was not always the first to adapt a new advancement in technology or superior methods of social organization, but it was always the fastest. This speed was only made possible because the tradition of truth-telling and its subsequent manifestations in the law allowed these rapid advancements to take place on a relatively stable foundation. This is how the West was able to maintain a stable and relatively high standard of living despite changing faster than most other societies around the world.
Propertarianism, in other words, is about understanding the effects of enforcing truth-telling in markets — not just economic markets, but social, sexual, political, and ideological markets too.
While Libertarianism correctly emphasized the importance of markets, it held the market not merely as an efficient means of allocating scarce resources, but really as a kind of adjudicator of truth. The problem is that in a competitive dynamic, it may be advantageous for one group to deceive another, and when markets reflect democratic opinion, rather than scientific or testimonial opinion, lies often win out. John Stuart Mill’s claim that truth tends to win out over falsehood simply doesn’t take into account just how haphazard the field of human society really is. Consider science, by analogy. Science is not conducted democratically. If it were, we very well might not hold evolution to be a true theory.
So what are these effects of truth-telling? The effects are the creation of commons, institutions that are owned collectively by a group. Most commonly thought of in the classic game-theory concept of the tragedy of the commons, commons are actually highly efficient and can be sustainable with the right incentives. Moreover, they are not limited to physical objects. The state is a commons. The law is a commons. Science is a commons. Even more abstract ideas like public hygiene and beauty in one’s neighborhood can be thought of as commons of a kind.
Libertarianism lacks the moral and cause-effect language (and therefore, the physical will) to preserve its own commons — not least of which being its own moral precepts. Only Hans Hermann Hoppe seems to understand this, as he famously observed that a sustainable libertarian order must “physically remove” non-libertarians from its realm. By contrast, Propertarianism maintains the libertarian emphasis on markets and individual freedom, but does not maintain the moral nihilism that libertarianism binds itself to, the “I’ll do me, you do you” ambivalence that throws away the commons that make up Western Civilization.
For more information, you can read this more thorough explanation of the Propertarianism by Eli Harman, or check out his introduction at the October 2017 NW Forum: