If asked to choose one word to sum up what libertarianism is all about, many libertarians would, not very surprisingly, choose: liberty. Of those who didn’t choose liberty many others would instead say: freedom. Most English speaking people, including most libertarians, seem to use these two words pretty much interchangeably. For me, if obliged to choose just one word to say what libertarianism means, that one word would probably be: consent.
Lots of ideologues now believe in liberty, or freedom, or say that they do. But, we all have different views about how to get it, protect it and preserve it, and about what its proper limits are. Libertarians, for instance, do not believe that people should be at liberty (free) to launch unprovoked and violent attacks against the persons or properties of others. Many would say that this means that we believe in restricting freedom. We do. One of the major purposes of property is to enable the property owner to limit freedom, on or in using his property. (We believe that restricting freedom in this particular way nevertheless maximises it.)
Consent is also a slippery concept – a bone upon which flesh must also be put if it is to be clear what is being said – but I think that consent, more exactly than mere liberty, communicates what libertarianism is all about.
Two scraps of descriptive flesh, then.
First, consent is, in particular, a better way to summarise libertarianism than another very popular mantra, involving the idea of harm. That you should be allowed to do what you like so long as you do no harm to others, as a short summary of libertarianism, or of mere governmental wisdom in general, is just plain wrong, and opens the door to all manner of governmental and other interferences into what ought to be perfectly legal activities.
Every professional sportsman who ever gets stuck into an opponent is trying to boost his own career at the expense of the career of his opponent, in short, to harm the other guy. The point is not that a sportsman is not harmed when he loses an important and economically portentous contest; the point is that he consented to the fixture, and to any harm that losing it, or for that matter winning it, might bring to him. He knew when he entered the contest that he might lose, perhaps humiliatingly. His entire career, even the rest of his life, might then be badly deranged. Too bad. Those were the rules he consented to. This definitely includes the physical dangers involved in consenting to a physically violent sport, such as boxing, or to dangerous body contact sports like rugby or American football.
Second, consent, as understood by libertarians, applies to all the individuals who participate in an event, rather than to a mere majority of them, or to a substantial minority of them. The phrase “consent of the governed” to a libertarian, is decidedly contradictory. Which do you want? Consent? Or a whole lot of people who have not actually consented to anything being “governed”?
Every individual involved in a rugby international consented to take part, indeed was probably frantically eager to do so and thrilled to be selected, despite all the dangers of getting quite badly hurt or being made a very public fool of. But if even one individual involved in such an event were to be kidnapped and forced against his will to take part, that would be wrong, say we libertarians. And says almost everyone else. That a mere majority consented to the event would be no excuse for such a kidnapping.
Most would agree about applying the consent axiom to rugby matches, at least when it comes to adults. What distinguishes us libertarians from the rest is that we apply this kind of thinking to as many other arrangements as we possibly can.
One of the major purposes of this blog is to draw attention to the mostly rather less chatty, but more earnestly and thoughtfully ccomposed, publications of the Libertarian Alliance, both recent and not so recent.
So, in connection with the consent principle, or the “consent axiom”, as he calls it, let me draw your attention to Leon Louw’s Legal Notes No. 10, entitled Libertarianism and the Lessons of the Common Law. “Consent” being of the subheadings in this piece, towards the end of page two.
Under which Louw writes:
Libertarianism argues that one may not initiate aggression, or fraud, or theft. The absence of force or fraud is, in my view, not enough to distinguish permissible from non-permissible acts. This is why I prefer to speak of the “consent axiom”. For example, if I leave my car with the key in it and somebody sees it and drives off in it – have they aggressed? Have they defrauded me? It seems to me not. It seems to me that the much better litmus test is whether they have used me or my property without my consent. That is surely a much more universally applicable and useful test.
And, as I say, we don’t just apply the consent axiom to relatively uncontroversial applications, like car theft and sports contests. We apply it, or we try to, to everything.