I would like to examine a couple of things in this post, different but related. The first, represented in the title, is this sentiment – perhaps the premier sentiment if one wants to capture, in one phrase, the thinking of the Enlightenment. The second is a commonly offered sentiment about the NAP, which – it seems to me – is dependent on the first.
Keep in mind, this is my first attempt at stumbling through these concepts in a concise manner; be kind in your feedback.
All Men Are Created Equal
I will walk through the various interpretations of this statement – not chronologically, but from the most inane to the most rational…at least to me, and at least to this point of my thinking (and I will stay out of the “made in God’s image” discussion).
Some background: there was a time in my life when I thought this the most excellent statement upon which one might build a political philosophy; the opening of the Declaration of Independence would rarely leave me with dry eyes. I would say that I have been cured of this sickness – both by the way that the phrase has been used to suppress excellence and by the result of eliminating natural governance institutions.
So, the most inane: all men are created equal…in ability. For most thinking people, this can be dispensed with quickly. The easiest place to see this falsity of this view is in athletics; for some reason, it seems the only (or at least the most) politically correct reason to point to regarding this view. Mention it in other contexts and count the moments before the lynching.
How about all men are afforded equal opportunity? Well, we know that there are countless laws on the books to bring this in order to attempt to bring this into fruition…as much as force, fines, and prison can make an unreality real. But we know this also is not true. The politically correct example? Those born into wealth have much greater opportunities than those born into poverty. This issue points to the reasons why it is easy for law to focus on equal opportunity. Just remember, it doesn’t apply to the children of wealthy athletes!
Now, for the version that I was settled on for quite some time, the one that seemed most libertarian and grounded in reality as opposed to the previously noted interpretations / applications. All men are equal under the law. Yes, I know that it doesn’t apply to politicians, many wealthy and / or connected individuals, etc. But as an ideal, I thought it couldn’t get much better than this.
I have been giving this some thought on and off for some time; it isn’t so easy to break from something upon which I felt so grounded for much of my life. Then, recently, the light bulb went on…from darkness to light – well, a light bulb with a dimmer switch. Or is it a train….
If I was to form the most libertarian statement on this matter, I would say that all men are equally free to live under a law regime of their choosing. Of course, this runs into practical limitations, most certainly: what if no one else chooses to recognize or live within your law regime?
Ideally, I would be able to create a law regime of my liking, but we live in a world with other humans. Just like the market for any product, we don’t have unlimited and perfect choices, we just get to choose from available choices. This is why I see decentralization as the practical application of the NAP.
I think about the law that I would live under in a libertarian society: the bare minimum law would be the NAP…but would this bare minimum be my choice? What if I want something more? It seems to me that everything above bare minimum of the NAP would be agreed to individually, not universally: call it by contract, call it oath, call it HOA rules, call it moral leadership, or call it acceptance of culture and tradition, whatever.
I want to live in a neighborhood where sex orgies on the front lawn aren’t allowed, where grill-outs and fire pits are common. You may want a neighborhood that excludes children. I might be willing to pay some sort of association fees for upkeep and maintenance of the common property.
What about conditions of employment? Who to hire, who to fire, benefits, etc. Different people have different desires / requirements.
So, it seems that “all men equal under the law” requires 100% of law to be made by a third party (however much “law” that is); a “universal” law. “All men free to live under a law regime of their choosing” would mean 10% of your law is universal (the NAP) and 90% of your law is chosen – which, in practical application means 100% of your law is unique (not universal), as it will not look like the NAP to an outsider.
My point is…in a society of libertarian law, most of the law we would live under will be self-selected (within the limitations of finding others who feel the same as you do). In other words, we aren’t all created equal under the law; we are equal in our ability to choose our law.
That, it seems to me, is about as libertarian as it gets…and, by the way, it is quite consistent with the philosophy underlying medieval law.
Which brings me to part two of this examination.
Libertarianism is For Everyone
Look, doesn’t everyone want to be secure in their person and property, not be murdered or robbed, have the freedom to exchange, not be artificially limited by others in our choices in life, etc.?
How could anyone answer “no” to this? But I really don’t care about how someone answers it, what matters is what is meant by these words to different people. As if in order to demonstrate that even at the extremes of a continuum, libertarians cannot settle on defining “aggression” or applying “punishment,” consider the following example: abortion is not considered murder by many libertarians.
Imagine, a “non-aggression principle” that allows the most heinous aggression against the most vulnerable and innocent among us. Some libertarians certainly feel otherwise. Murdering an unborn child for the supposed crime of trespass? This is even worse than shooting a child for stealing an apple – again demonstrating well that even at the extremes of the continuum, libertarians cannot settle on such definitions / applications.
Open borders, yes or no? Intellectual property, yes or no? The list goes on. My law might have open borders, yours might not; my law might allow for abortion, yours might not; my law might allow for recognition of intellectual property, yours might not; my law might consider “proportional” what your law considers excessive when it comes to punishment.
Even before we get to the unique conditions people find themselves in around the world, we cannot even come to a “universal law” among western libertarians.
Who am I to tell someone – who lives in a culture, climate, tradition, etc., very different from anything I understand – that my interpretation is his interpretation; that “I have just the law for you”? Well, beyond saying that libertarian law is law of your own choosing – in reality, via decentralization allowing for the maximum number of choices.
What matters is maximizing choice and having an environment that supports the possibility of individuals making their choice.
If all men are created equal to choose their own law, then to insist that libertarianism is universal is invalid – unless by libertarianism we mean each individual is free to choose his law. If it is libertarian for each of us to choose our own law, then there is no such thing as a single universal law for all; if libertarianism (as you interpret its application) is universal, then I am not free to choose my own law (and for this, a strongman will be required).
And in this, we find the difference in the decentralization vs. universalist camps. If it is ever to be found, liberty will only be found in decentralized society and decentralized law.