Libertarians often get charged with extremism, rigidly and dogmatically attached to being anti-government, the implication being that to reconcile the debate between pro-state and anti-state, compromises have to be made. What the critics usually mean by that is that the correct amount of government is somewhere in-between total government and no government. But we needn’t reach that conclusion to achieve a compromise on outcome, that causes as little conflict as possible, whilst not compromising on principles.

In fact, if we break down what compromise actually means, it shows that liberty can produce the best kinds of compromise whilst avoiding the worst.

There are two definitions of ‘compromise’:

  1. an agreement or settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions

and

  1. the expedient acceptance of standards that are lower than is desirable

If the critics mean that political libertarians have trouble compromising, in the 1st definition, it’s hard to disagree, especially if you’re talking about the ‘pure’ libertarians. When dealing with Libertarians that come from a natural rights, deontological perspective, it is difficult to persuade them to concede to some regulation or some government program. They are libertarians because they believe the non-aggression principle (NAP) cannot be violated, and any divergence would represent an unjustified compromise of values (definition 2).

There are others who are more likely to compromise (definition 1), if they do not believe it represents an unjustified compromise of values. They hold to a general view that the government should remain small, but are not opposed to some regulations or government programs if and when they deem it appropriate. Others favour no government at all on a practical ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ basis. Theoretically, these libertarians could favour some government if they could be persuaded that the program or regulation in question would benefit humanity more than harm it.

When politicians expect others to compromise, they usually expect the other to agree to vote for a particular bill in aid of a working majority, sometimes justified in terms of ‘what is best for the country’, even if it is not ideal for them. When this does not occur, the offending individuals are labeled ‘obstructionists’, and are seen as stubborn blowhards that are more interested in ideology and partisanship than service to the people.

Principled libertarians in office, rare as they are, are guilty as charged. Congressman Ron Paul earned the nickname ‘Dr. No’ for the amount of bills he stood against, a stunning majority of them.

However, I contend that this is totally justifiable behaviour, and ultimately, even the first type of ‘dogmatic’ libertarian is a better compromiser.

The compromising market system

If we consider the first definition of compromise, it is not in opposition to ‘dogmatic’ libertarianism. This is not only compatible with libertarianism; it is essential to its definition. The foundation of liberty is the non-aggression principle (NAP), which simply states that no man may aggress against another man or his property. This necessarily implies that whatever disputes do occur in a society that accepts libertarian values, a compromise will have to be made.

If we accept that no party in the transaction will aggress against the other, the only way to solve the dispute within the contract, say over the price of a good, is to negotiate to find a mutually agreeable outcome. The seller wants to sell the good at the highest possible price, whilst the buyer wants to buy the product at the lowest possible price. The statist should argue: how can we possibly resolve a dispute between these people, who, clearly, have irreconcilable preferences: they want totally opposite outcomes for each other!

But anybody who has ever left their house knows what happens next: both sides will haggle in the direction of their preferences until they reach a price that is mutually acceptable – a median price in-between the highest and lowest price they will both accept. The transaction is made, and both parties perceive that they are better off than before (though one or both of them might regret it later). If a mutually beneficial price cannot be reached, there will be no transaction, and the buyer would look for another seller and the seller would look for another buyer. Or they could both go about their day satisfied that, at least, they are not worse off than before.

The market is a society of ‘mutual benefactors’. This is a great economic insight that goes back as far as St. Thomas Aquinas, and embraced by the Austrian school. Jeffrey Tucker remarks:

[Aquinas’ followers] saw that economic exchange was mutually beneficial, with each party to the exchange seeing an increase in personal welfare, subjectively perceived. Therefore the action of exchange on its own becomes a means of increasing the well-being of all people. (1)

This scenario, which is literally how the market process works and thrives, is good compromise: there is an agreement/settlement (the transaction), of a dispute (over the price) that is reached by each side making concessions (ideally the buyer would want the good for free, and the seller would like to sell the good for all the world’s riches, but they concede a median, mutually beneficial price). Is this a loose application? Regardless, the point is that every exchange is an act towards the general welfare. Therefore, any act that attempts to inhibit the market process will risk the lessening of people’s satisfaction.

Property rights as compromise

Of course there is an assumption that underpins it all: that the seller has the right to sell the good in the first place. For liberty cannot rely on the NAP alone. In order to understand ‘aggression’, first one must have a firm conception of property rights. Libertarianism uses the best kind, whereas the statist conception of property is problematic at best.

If we truly are looking for a compromise that benefits everybody, everybody has to be on an equal footing. This means that every individual requires rights. In fact, the whole idea of compromise necessarily implies that everyone has a right to pursue his or her preferences. Whenever you’re talking about universals (all, everybody, every time), this is when the critics jump in and call you an ‘extremist’, which is also what they revert to if you’re not swayed by ‘non-compromiser!’. But we’re all extremists if we believe in any concept of equality or equal rights, which makes it a useless phrase.

But, at least libertarians are consistent in their extremism. Libertarians argue for the respect of rights, and strongly, but are unique in that they add the proviso that no one’s rights be violated in pursuance of. Statists, on the other hand, concede the right to own and pursue some property provided that one follows arbitrary rules they have laid down. They grant the state super-power right over others’ property to do as it wishes.

This flies in the face of philosophical soundness, let alone the idea of compromise. There is no reason whatsoever we should grant politicians’ rights that other individuals do not have. Even by the widely accepted proviso of democracy that all legitimate power derives from the people, this doesn’t make sense. If we do not have the right to violate others’ property rights, we cannot grant that right to politicians, even if the majority of us has voted for it. The state, then, is simply an agent for theft. The state is institutionalized violation of property rights.

So, clearly, we need a sound and consistent view of property rights if civilization is to progress. We need one that is consistent with the principle of self-ownership, which is hard to dispute, and that causes the least amount of conflict. The whole point of property rights is to avoid conflict in the distribution of resources, because if we were living in a world without scarcity, there would be no conflict and there would therefore be no need for compromise.

What conception of property do we follow? There are many to choose from. Any leftist version of property rights has problems because they all rely on either a centralized distribution of property or entirely collectivist conception. One cannot find a non-arbitrary way to justify one individual party or individual having the right to dole out property to others whilst others do not. The collectivist vision is disastrously impractical and inherently creates conflict.

To date, Hans-Herman Hoppe offers the most comprehensive and satisfying view of property rights, that happens to be in sync with the assumption of conflict-avoidance inherent in the concept of compromise.

Every person is the private owner of all nature-given goods that he has perceived as scarce and put to use by means of his body, before any other person. Again, who else, if not the first user, should be their owner? The second user? Or the first and the second user jointly? Yet such rulings again would be contrary to the very purpose of norms: of helping to avoid conflict, rather than to create it.

Although libertarians often cite ‘the tragedy of the commons’ as a critique of state-owned land, they do not, in principle, oppose nominal collective ownership of land, provided the original owner complied with the proper conception of property rights – that he is the first user. What libertarians are united against is claim to property that the individual or group has not homesteaded or contracted for. If a group homesteads a piece of land and wants to share responsibility for it with all of its members, you would hear no principled objection from a libertarian.

So, in order to be consistent, libertarians are in favour of rigid enforcement of private property rights. This might not be satisfactory to those who most often scream ‘compromise’ at them, but who cares, honestly? It is no sin to resist compromise in the 2nd definition if one is following sound principles. As yet, the statists have failed to provide an adequate refutation of these principles to justify the violation of them that they desire.

The private property system is also an incredible method of compromise in the practical sense. It leaves everybody on an equal footing: we all have the same right to hold and pursue property, provided that they do not violate anybody else’s right in the process.

This is how it plays out: Bob and Peter both want the same apple, but Bob grew the tree (dispute). Peter offers Bob a fish in exchange for the apple, and Bob agrees. Peter is now short one fish, and Bob is short one apple (concession). However, they both perceive that they are better off than before. Here a dispute has been resolved, with no conflict, and without anybody’s rights being violated.

Compare this to how the state might handle the situation: they would either A. choose who is to have the apple and who is to have the fish based on some arbitrary measure like ‘patriotism’ or ‘the good of society’, which neither Bob or Peter care about, or B. enforce a rule that says neither of them can prevent the other from using any resource they have ‘collectively’. Both situations would result in one or both of them perceiving that they are worse off than before, and would necessarily create conflict between them. It does not represent any kind of concession, and the dispute has not been resolved.

The private property system has evolved out of centuries of practice in dispute resolution, but if one were to design the perfect property rights system from scratch, it would not be too dissimilar. No system has been discovered that more accurately resolves disputes.

Theoretically, even the collectivists could be appeased. In a libertarian society, we would see conventional private property communities living in tandem with communes. The group that owned the communal land could establish rules that would be more in keeping with socialist thinking, provided that the contract is respected and the members could leave if they wanted to. The only technical difference between a libertarian society and a state society is that the state arbitrarily claims ownership over everybody’s land, and has the sole legal right to claim property without contract. If statism arrived, as opposed to always being there, it would play out like this: you’re living your life peacefully until the state comes along and says that they own you now, takes your money, gives you stuff you don’t want, tells you what to do, and tells you that you can wait for 4 years until you can elect a new chairman and that you’re unpatriotic if you disagree with this whole process. That is the farthest thing from the first definition of compromise – we’re not even in the same ballpark.

The state as compromise

There is no other way to put it: statism sucks as a way of compromise.

In the market, transactions can only occur if both parties perceive that they will be better off afterwards. Invariably, with state ‘compromise’, both parties feel like they are worse off than before!

Democracies, meant to be the epitome of compromise, almost always appeal to the lowest common denominator – governments do just enough to appease the most powerful voting groups to make sure there is no mass revolt, and then they continue to fleece the mildly disgruntled public.

This scenario is played out today in most western countries: the left wants a social democracy, and the right wants a theocracy and/or a nationalist state, a ‘compromise’ is made, and what we get is a colossal statist mess. Both sides believe that the opposing side are conspiring to create a dystopian nightmare. The democratic system represents ‘an advanced auction sale of stolen goods’, with which all parties wrangle for control over other peoples’ resources to direct towards their own ends.

But the defenders of democracy say that there are mutually shared principles that supersede our individual political wants and nice-to-haves, and this is the ultimate aim. It’s revealed by the constant pleas to put aside our partisanship for the ‘good of the country’, which can mean next to anything, from the welfare state to world war. But not cooperating with these grand schemes, if they violate one’s principles, is an entirely rational response. ‘Compromise’ does not mean ‘do what I say, even if you disagree with me, because it will make things easier’.

The ‘good of the country’ is an impossible dream, for what that ‘good’ actually is depends on the activist in question. If each side of a political debate has polar opposite values and principles, any kind of compromise will leave both unsatisfied, as is demonstrated by our political system today. How can it be that nobody is happy in a democratic country? It should be that everybody is happy.

But in a system that dictates that there is one answer to every social problem, there are always going to be those that are unhappy. The opponents will hate it on principle, and the proponents will meekly defend it whilst attacking the motives of the other side. Even those that wanted the outcome in the first place will be unhappy because the government is so inefficient at providing it. This great ‘compromising’ system does nothing but create conflict, and we are supposed to love it.

Choose freedom

Taking a wide-angle view of this whole situation, liberty is clearly a vastly superior form of societal organization. Pragmatically, in the wider goal of reaching as many people’s preferences as possible, and morally, as it does not violate anybody’s rights in the process.

The libertarian creed is ‘live and let live’. If a person’s actions do not harm you, there is no justification for you to interfere for that person’s actions. Conversely, the statist implication is that there is one way for this society to be structured, and that the law must enforce it. The libertarian vision would allow groups of vastly differing values and principles to peacefully co-exist, and would provide a means of strivin everything a peaceful individual wants that can be gained by peaceful means.

If, for a moment, we divorce ourselves from the wider subject of the state and instead look at our private lives, the issues become less muddied. Think of a functioning family, that does not implement a central plan for all of the rooms in the house but allows each member to create a space for themselves that meets their needs. One child wants a blue room, and another wants a pink room. The state says: well obviously we need to pick one or the other otherwise the house will lack a collective identity that makes us look weak in the eyes of other families. Or, they could argue that pink is a poor life choice and must be criminalized (why not? It’s about as justifiable as criminalizing drugs). The rational family says: both children can have their needs met by giving them sovereignty over their own rooms. The other having a room that does not meet their preferences harms neither child. Most families would accept this as an entirely acceptable and necessary solution, and would, if one of their children were complaining about the others’ room’s colour, tell them to deal with it. (3)

One could spend a week listing the social problems that could be solved or mostly-solved if liberty was taken as a given rather than an exception.

For example, the millions of dollars and lives lost to the war on drugs could have been prevented if the state decided to simply let peaceful users alone. Those who wished to sell the drugs would have been compelled to do it through legitimate means, out in the open and could have contracts enforced by law instead of gang warfare. Addicts could seek help without fear of incrimination. The market process would produce the safest forms of drugs in accordance with consumer demand.

The apparently dividing debate between the creationists and evolutionists would be demoted to simply a petty difference – the only reason the question is at all relevant in the public sphere is because the outcome affects public policy, and we are forced to send our children to school. Ending compulsory education and integrating choice in the education sector by opening up a free-market in schooling would allow both schools of thought to compete. If a set of parents does not like the way a school is handling the debate can simply choose to patronize a different school. It is a great shame that we must insist on a one-size-fits-all policy for education.

The seemingly immortal minimum-wage debate could end if it were widely accepted that those who work for minimum-wage or less than mininum wage are doing so voluntarily and therefore cannot be considered subject to their employment, and is therefore none of anybody else’s business. Minimum wage, along with any other employment law, is a law prohibiting the behaviour of the employee as much as the employer. Employment laws are jobs prohibition for labour. Choose liberty instead: if you believe you are worth more than the wage a particular company is paying, you can choose not to work there. There is no sense in aggressively preventing others from working for a company that you do not personally like. Liberty produces a society that has workers working for companies that meet their particular preferences, and avoiding those that do not. Statism produces a society that limits the choices of individuals to a point where they have to work for companies that don’t meet their preferences as well as they’d like, or not work at all.

We must choose the market system, that encourages peaceful cooperation, a middle-way that leaves both parties better off than before; and any disputes that do occur can defer to a solid system of laws based on individual liberty and property rights. It is the only way our species have discovered that closely solves the problem of scarcity. It is the only way that gives every individual an equal footing in disputes, which is the assumption of any theory of compromise.

If libertarians seem stubbornly attached to their theory, it is only because they have made the necessary commitment to the principle of non-aggression. It is as rational as any other universal principle that ‘normal’ people hold in their day-to-day lives. Libertarians simply apply it consistently, and to all individuals and parties, including the state. It is not obvious to the libertarian that the aims of the statists and collectivists are great ones, and that it is worth violating principles in the pursuance of them. No balanced individual in the modern age would advocate slavery, or institutionalized rape, or genocide to achieve these aims, yet most continue to believe in the super-morality of the state, that is no more justifiable.

If libertarian ‘fundamentalism’ mystifies you, think about re-assessing your view of the state. Are you holding the state to a lower moral standard than you do to your family and friends? Try listing things that the state is permitted to do that you are not. If you’re a peaceful person, libertarianism should not represent a huge divergence from your views. In fact, it should represent the truest vision of your principles. Once you see that, libertarianism doesn’t seem so much like a lack of compromise but a strong conviction in peace, which is the ultimate form of compromise.

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(1) Jeffrey Tucker, A Society of Mutual Benefactors http://mises.org/daily/4427

(2) Hans-Herman Hoppe, State or Private-Law Society http://mises.org/daily/5270

(3) Technically, as owners of the house, the parents can tell their children to do whatever they want, but the point is that their implementation of a proxy-private-property system works on a practical basis.