It is common on the internet to encounter libertarians who decry the existence of the state which they view as nothing short of oppression. To them the state is a tyranny to which no one has agreed to. The world would be a better place if the state was drastically reduced in size or even abolished. Why should be people forced to obey rules against their will? Instead everyone should be free to do as they wish on their own property. However, I’d like to use a thought experiment to show how a world of solely private property is little different from our current world and how private property contains many of the arbitrary coercion that libertarians so passionately denounce in states.
Imagine if you will, a man buys an island. In this world the state is either minimal or non-existent so the man is free to do whatever he wants on his property. Let’s say he wants to rent it to some people. Without any meddling government, he can build the houses as he wishes and impose whatever conditions he wants on the tenants. As the landlord, he is free to choose whoever he wants to live on his island. He may refuse smokers or pet owners or people of certain political opinion or those from certain ethnicities. His island, his rules.
Suppose this man decides to allow some businesses to be created on his island. Again, he will maintain ownership of the property and merely rent the land to the businesses. As it is his property, he can decide what businesses can or cannot open and what rules they must abide. He could refuse strip clubs from opening or prohibit pubs or refuse religious buildings or even hardware shops if he felt like it. He could mandate that no business stays open later than 10pm or require them to obtain licences to operate. He could mandate that they must fill in hundreds of pages of forms every year or that they must abide by certain health and safety laws.
Even the inhabitants’ leisure time would not be free as they are still on the landlords’ property. He could dictate what drugs they cannot touch or forbid them to do certain things to their bodies. He could control what people are free to say and write, who they can or cannot love, their religion, everything about them. It’s his property so he is king.
In exchange for this, the tenants of course will have to pay rent. The landlord can choose not only how much rent is to be paid, but also what form it will be in. He can declare that it must be paid as a flat amount or as a percentage of the tenants’ income or the profits of the businesses. He can arbitrarily change this whenever he wants. The landlord could provide services in return but is under no obligation to do so. If he did provide a school or a hospital, he could declare them monopolies and refuse to allow anyone compete with them. He could hire private security guards to enforce his rules and forbid the tenants from owning weapons of their own.
Generations could pass until none of the original tenants were still living and the original contract was long forgotten. You could end up with a group of people on an island for reasons they don’t know obeying the arbitrary rules made by someone who no one can understand why they are in charge.
Tell me, what is the difference between this and the state?
Although the above scenario involves a private landlord dealing with private property, people are no freer than when they live in a state. In fact there is little difference between this island and say, the island of Ireland. Both have someone in charge who makes rules about what you can and cannot do with your body, in your home or at work. Libertarians may ask what right the state has to do this, but even in a libertarian world you must obey rules others make. At least in our world we have some say in how those rules are made, rights to protect us and a say in how our taxes/rent is spent. If libertarians cannot understand what right the state has to make rules then think of the island of Ireland as the private property of the Irish state (or the 26 counties to be exact).
But, a libertarian would argue, the tenants can simply move if they dislike the landlords rules, they are under no obligation to live on the island. But the same can be said about a state. I am under no obligation to live in Ireland and I could live if I dislike its laws. Freedom of movement acts as a check on both the landlord and the state (though either one could remove this right if they wished and no one would stop them). Both run into the problem of finding another state/landlord to let them onto their land, as well as differences in language, culture, economy. There are costs in moving residence and leaving your job, friends and home. That’s why a private landlord can be as dictatorial (or more) as a state in its rules as the threat of leaving is unlikely to be taken up on.
But, a libertarian would protest, can’t the tenants buy their own property and become their own masters? In theory yes, but why would anyone sell to them? In our world property is somewhere to live and a source of income, but in a libertarian world it is a source of power and security too. Why would the landlord give up the power and control he has of his island? Do people no longer thirst for power in a libertarian world? There is as little chance of landlords giving up land and power as there is of states. Plus not everyone has the money to afford property (especially as there would undoubtedly be a property price boom considering the freedom and power that would come with it).
So what you actually have is a retreat to the time before the rise of states, namely feudalism. Instead of states, landlords held the power and they make the rules. Property was concentrated in a few hands and the peasants had little rights and no means of obtaining property. It was not until the rise of the state that the great landlord estates were broken up (look at any colonial country if you don’t believe me). In fact it is a great irony that you need a state in order for a stateless society to work (unless of course you don’t mind Latin America style inequality).
So this is why I don’t buy the libertarian criticism of the state. The state is essentially the landlord of the country (most constitutions open with lines to this effect). Abolishing it and replacing it with a private landlord would be no improvement and would in fact be a step back in time, both in terms of economics and personal freedom. No one knows what the original contract was in the first state or what entice settlers to Ireland, but centuries later we are the tenants of the Republic and subject to its rules. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Update: A response has been written to this post.