Two Constructions of Libertarianism

By Kukathas, Chandran | Libertarian Papers, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Two Constructions of Libertarianism

Kukathas, Chandran, Libertarian Papers


Libertarians believe that all individuals are entitled to live as they choose, free from interference by other persons or by the state. They also believe that in the absence of such interference, whether by government or other agents of the state intent on designing or planning for society as a whole, order will nonetheless prevail. Given the freedom to contract and exchange, markets will coordinate the production and distribution of goods--and indeed do so better than any other institution can. But it is the first belief that is theoretically distinctive, and distinguishes libertarians from others, such as free-market utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham. For libertarians think that what is most important is to defend the freedom of individuals to live without being victims of aggression by others--against their persons, or against the property they have rightly acquired. Two early statements by thinkers held in high esteem in the libertarian tradition put the point very plainly. The Leveller, Richard Overton, in "An Arrow Against All Tyrants," wrote:

   To every individual in nature is given an individual property by
   nature, not to be invaded or usurped by any: for everyone as he is
   himself, so he hath a self-propriety, else could he not be himself,
   and on this no second may presume to deprive any of, without
   manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature....

In other words, all individuals are self owners. And self-ownership carries with it the freedom to own property. The most famous statement of this view is Locke's:

   Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men,
   yet every man has a property in his own person: this nobody has any
   right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his
   hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out
   of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath
   mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own,
   and thereby makes it his property. (2)

In short, all individuals must have liberty; but only that liberty that is consistent with a respect for the liberty and property of others. And this is the basis of the libertarian account of the justification for, and role of, the state. If individuals own themselves, and have a right not be aggressed against by others, no government is legitimate unless it has the consent of the people. (For some libertarians, it is then simply a matter of logic to show by inference that no government is legitimate.) For those libertarians who think there is a role for government, its purpose cannot be to improve people, or attend to their welfare, or satisfy their needs, or give them what they deserve. At most, its purpose is to protect individual liberty against invasion by others, whether at home or from abroad. Otherwise, it should leave people alone. What could be simpler?

Yet matters may not be quite so straightforward. For there is more than one kind of society that could issue from such simple beginnings. Indeed, there are at least two very different societies which might be constructed out of such libertarian first principles. And it must be asked, first, which of these is the one that libertarians ought to prefer; and, second, whether either of them is wholly acceptable from a libertarian point of view. To be a libertarian is to attach especial importance--if not overriding value--to liberty. Which, if either, of the societies produced by libertarian principles is acceptable from the standpoint of liberty? That is the question to be explored here.


Let us begin by imagining the first society, called the Federation of Liberty. In this society it is recognized that aggression is fundamentally wrong, for "no man or group of men have the right to aggress against the person or property of anyone else." Aggression is recognized to mean "the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of someone else. …

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