Categories of Libertarianisms

Just defining what a particular socio-economic theory includes is difficult, when history has continued to generate more and more variations of the concept.


One of the problems of making up a new socio-economic theory is that words often associated with such theories are almost undefined, or have such a spread of definitions that using them leads to confusion. While each author using the word may have a clear definition, it differs from what was used elsewhere, meaning that comparison is difficult, typically a tedious exercise in figuring out exactly what each author meant by it. When there are multiple words needing such a explanation, simply keeping the different definitions straight is onerous. There must be a better way to use language in expressing concepts.

If a word is used to label a complex socio-economic theory, it seems to be a common practice to re-use the word when a second similar theory is constructed, even if the similarities are rather partial. Then some adjectives might be used to divide up these two somewhat similar theories, with the single-word label chosen to represent those attributes which are in common. This gets messy as well, as such theories typically cover all aspects of society, or as many as the author felt important or had time to cover, and the second and deeper levels of adjectival modification can be used to represent any subset of them. Perhaps a better way would be to label the theory by the name of the author, and in situations where there are mutual authors, one descending from another, or one modifying the work of another, or one extracting key concepts from another, just to give up in despair.

Libertarianism is one such word. It has been used since the seventeenth century to label a wide, wide variety of socio-economic theories. Some put capitalism and communism both under the umbrella, or more specifically, some varieties of both capitalism and communism there, with others outside. There seems to be no way to clean up the concept and make something quite distinct out of it, as there is such a long history of ideas and theories to which it has been attached. Scholars like to dissect the writings of previous creators of such theories, and show similarities and flows of concepts and the like. For the purpose of the creation of a new theory, histories of ideas like this are amusing, but might be distracting or even obfuscating.

Typically, almost universally, the authors of tracts or books on some specific, particular variant of a socio-economic theory are proponents of the theory. Otherwise they might be writing their missives for the purpose of gaining favor with those to whom benefits would flow if it were adopted, or justifying such a flow within an existing social arrangement. One either works for emotional benefits to oneself, or tangible benefits. Scholars might be writing dissertations on them for neither of these benefits, but to a career advantage that comes within an academic or similar circle.

Perhaps regrettably, I have no such benefits or feelings, and simply am trying to understand the essence of a socio-economic theory, principally for the amusement of seeing how ideas fit together and how a theory might be constructed out of them. It is sort of like having a set of Lego blocks as a child, and trying to make something out of them.

Two of the themes which often attract the label of libertarianism are individual liberty and a lack of government. These obviously conflict with one another, which is one reason why there are so many variations of libertarianism. When one writes in favor of individual liberty, there is an implicit list of things which can be done and a complementary list of things which cannot be done. For each of these actions which can be done, there may be consequences, and how they are treated needs to be specified as well. Then comes the idea of community, and what types of community might be formed, and after formed, managed. How do communities interact with other communities and with individuals?

Just how little government is prescribed is another matter. Some government is necessary to ensure that whatever rules the author or authors of the socio-economic theory are prescribing to the population affected are enforced. Certain libertarian variations relabel government as private security, but this is simply another form of government. When we think about a modern government and the myriad rules they prescribe as to prohibited and mandatory actions, we can obtain an idea about how much detail needs to be included in a socio-economic theory. It has been the experience of virtually all governments that legal systems grow more and more complicated with time. This should be obvious. Laws that are written serve as the system that people interact within, and so loopholes and novelties are sought to obtain personal advantage, without violating the rules that have been established. This might offend some thinkers relating to abstract notions they espouse, and so the laws have to be increased to cover these offensive behaviors.

If we want to categorize socio-economic theories, or specifically the variations of libertarianisms, there should first be some thought about how to do that, and, as before any complex task, there should be some thought about what is the goal of the definitional exercise. It may well be that many of the scholarly distinctions and classifications of libertarianism are useless for some purposes, and unless we know the purpose of the definition activity, we could easily go down that path. Some erudite explanation of the variations could be done, but they would miss the point.

What components of a socio-economic theory rise up to be the top-level distinctions between variations? Recall that there are three essential parts to such a theory: that part relating to production, that relating to distribution of that which is produced, and that relating to consumption. Recall also that many labels are completely useless in defining such a theory. Ownership is one such label. Control of the use of something is what affects production, distribution and consumption. Ownership could reside in the whole population or in individuals, some group of nobility or some class like a wealthy elite, but those that control use are the ones who make decisions that affect the lives of the citizens.

Once a specification is given as to who makes controlling decisions for these three components of a socio-economic theory, there needs to be a span of control description. Things can be controlled so as to benefit a set of individuals, and exactly who are the ones to be benefited is a critical divisor of socio-economic theories. When we use the word benefits, there is also some clarity that is needed in this area. There are tangible benefits, such as shelter, nutrition, healthcare, education and so on, and there are intangible benefits, such as entertainment, praise, competitive awards and induced self-satisfaction. Benefits are dynamic, and can they be changed over the course of a citizen’s life through his own actions, and how much and what controls are in place to limit this? Inheritance of benefits is also a detail that might be needed for the top level categorization of a socio-economic theory. The use of one’s time is also a benefit. Who decides what a person will do with their own time, and what will be the consequences of that choice?

Two key ingredients in a socio-economic theory are motivation and corruption. Motivation is good and the theory should encourage it. Corruption is bad, and the theory should discourage it. Motivation in a libertarianism variant is tied to benefits, and one type of libertarianism is that individuals and communities should make decisions as to their own actions to receive benefits. In one extreme, all benefits might flow to individuals and communities made up of voluntary associations of individuals. In the other extreme, all tangible benefits might flow to the population, with only intangible benefits flowing to the individuals and communities.

Another dimension, not connected with the benefits one, is that of disposition of time. Who decides how a person might spend their time, and how much of it is under the control of the decision-maker, whoever he might be. One end of the spectrum has someone other than the individual or community deciding what they must be doing, or prescribing a boundary around the possible activities they can undertake. The other end of the spectrum has the individual or community deciding what they will do, within some boundary that has been set in advance. There is little difference between these two from one point of view, the real difference is the degree: is there much or little activity or time required by other than the individual or community?

There are four corners of this two-dimensional categorization. In one corner is the proletarian, who receives only benefits from communal activity but few from his own, and has their choice of activity strongly limited by some community of which he is a member. In another corner is the noble, to whom benefits flow from the society in general, and whose time is wholly their own, or all their own except for some obligations to higher levels of nobility. These are opposite corners. In the other corners are the entrepreneurial individual or community or the small land-holder, who receives all the benefits from his own work and is largely free from a draft of his labor but must devote himself or itself to gaining the benefits, and the prisoner, who receives only little benefits but has little demands on his time, although opportunities are negligible.

Libertarianism is the line from the entrepreneur to the proletarian. It relates to the motivation of production. Any set of theories as diverse as libertarianism cannot be condensed to a single line, but the two-dimensional spectrum provides perhaps the top-level view of the variations. Other dimensions are deemed here to be less important, but that might be considered somewhat arbitrary.

Goals in a Socio-Economic Theory

We don’t understand much of society’s workings, such as when economic collapse might occur, so how can a socio-economic theory be created which accomplishes this?

The universe does not give us goals or purposes or rules or anything else. They are chosen by man. Man chooses according to some preferences, and these preferences are not universal. In other words, there is no genetic programming for goals or anything that might be transformed into goals, except on the individual level. So when we look at entire societies, it is a severe challenge to turn anything, such as these individual goals, into rules for citizens in the society to follow.

This challenge has been overcome in every society, whether or not the rules are recorded somehow or just taught as custom. They vary tremendously, and since social and economic rules are part of the foundation of any socio-economic theory, making choices for them without any universal guidelines is also a severe challenge.

A consistent set of goals is desirable, to the extent allowed by the complexity of social life. Inconsistent goals lead to inconsistent rules for behavior, and this can be exploited by one faction, the one possessing power and force in the society, to be able to suppress all other factions, as there will be some rules that cannot be followed due to inconsistency. These can be used as a faux legitimization of punishment or levies imposed by the power faction on individuals from other factions. In general, however, consistent goals are desirable as it leads to all citizens in the society being able to follow whatever was determined to be in the best interests of the society.

Because there are such great differences between individuals in any society, the set of goals and the rules derived from them must apply differently to different categories of individuals. There are countless categorizations possible, by age, by sex, by caste, by origin, by accomplishments, by abilities, and certainly others. Rules would follow the template: a person in this category must do this and must not do this. Rule negatives can be expressed in the rules by a slightly different template: a person in this category may do this with no interference by governance. If the set of rules is logically created, each of them would relate to some goal, and would contribute to the achievement of that goal in some incremental way.

Goals are adopted because of some emotional connection within powerful individuals, or because of legacy considerations, in other words, at some time an individual or group makes up the rules, and then they stay in place until some other powerful group finds them in opposition with their internal interests and changes them. The goals can be completely opposite: one group may find conquest to their liking, and the society is organized to accomplish that; another group in another society might find that peace through defense is what they desire to organize their society around, and yet another might seek peace through any means including servitude or vassalage.

Categorization can exist via legacy divisions or can change, gradually or abruptly. Some specific caste can suffer an erosion of their perquisites, over a long period of time. Another caste might be freed from serfdom by a single order effective on a particular instant, which might be seen as abolishing a category arising from origin. A new category might be created by a draft order, affecting for example able-bodied males between the ages of 20 and 30, a new category not utilized before in the canon of laws. A schoolchild category can be created out of the larger category of children, consisting of those between 7 and 14, for example.
Most changes in goals, categories and rules affect the economics of interactions between individuals and between an individual and society as a whole, and thus have economic impacts as well as social ones. It would seem quite presumptuous to have a socio-economic theory specify all these details, but several have made attempts at it. The difficulty is getting started, and coming up with some goals, from which other aspects can be derived.

Goals can be chosen for a variety of sources, but underlying them is the desire of the creator of such a theory to have their own emotional framework justified. An author may have revenge as a covert emotion, and want to create a consistent, appealing system which eliminates the power and prestige of the targets of his emotion. Persuasion being what it is, this is certainly possible. Incremental changes would be easier to implement that a system-wide change, so this route might be easier to navigate than coming up with a whole system revision. Picking on the status or privileges of one group and persuading to change only that might be done with even a single book, or nowadays, a single e-book.

If an author does not have any revenge motive, or similar motive generated by their experiences in life or even their own vicarious experiences, what might substitute for that? Greed is one very strong motive, and an author of a new socio-economic system might be propagandising for his own benefit, or for the benefit of a group which will subsequently benefit him, after the new system begins to flourish and be adopted. This would work for an incremental change as well, and could serve as a legitimization of ongoing changes, ones which were not motivated by society being persuaded to change, but by some evolutionary alteration under way in the society to which the writing was addressed.

Besides hate and greed, behind whatever façade the author found convenient, their might be motivations more benign. An emotional desire to help others, or some specific others, without necessarily depriving others of their positions or privileges, might serve as well. Perhaps there is a way to make a non-zero sum game out of changes in a socio-economic theory, allowing this to happen, but likely there would be some collateral damage.

There could also be over-arching goals derived from abstract qualities and quantities, such as population, standard of living, trade, health, eugenics, and more. Consider the concept of progress in the technological sense; this could be used as a goal. As an example, if this latter goal were used, the categories that matter are those related to this pursuit. One category is that of scientists, another would be engineers, and a third would be technicians, all related to the continued progress of technology. Those involved with businesses which promulgate the technology across society would be yet another.

One choice that the rules could try to enforce could be continuous progress, meaning an absence of economic collapse, war, or other social catastrophes. It is true that war might accelerate the development of technology in certain areas, as has happened in our history already, but that only could take place if the development of technology were not already being emphasized and generally pushed forward as fast as possible, which is what a socio-economic system that was being built around this idea should achieve. War can divert resources into the progress or adoption of technology, but if resources are already being diverted in this direction, what more might be done by a wartime setting? Probably very little. Lackadaisical support for technology progress could be accelerated by the needs of war, but for this to exist, the socio-economic system would have had to almost fail in its principal objective.

For war to not occur, it would be necessary to understand the various causes of war, and try to establish the rules of society so that nothing leading to war would occur. Likewise, economic collapse would also have to be understood, and the predecessor conditions leading to it would have to be avoided in some manner. How exactly would some theory prevent these two scourges of society, when the processes that lead to them are not understood? The stability of society would have to be preserved, and this would have to happen even though the society was undergoing rapid change, due to the introduction, continuously, of newer and newer technology. Technology would have to be defined to be supported, but if it is deemed to be the application of scientific knowledge to any aspect of society, then the entire spectrum of science would be supported, and the trickle-down of scientific knowledge in every area of science, as applied to any appropriate aspect of society would also have to be supported. This sounds like a recipe for continuous transformation, and under such conditions, how would war and economic collapse, and any other social catastrophe, be avoided?

Another unknown is the best manner of governance. Take for example the governance of the principal objective, the expansion of scientific knowledge. How is the choice of subject chosen for any group of researchers? How is the allocation of funds to be best managed? How is education to be handled? How are all the aspects of society which contribute to having an educated, scientifically, population to be dealt with, or even determined and listed, much less directed in the useful manner?

This simple example of a goal-directed socio-economic system amply displays that we are far from having enough understanding of even simple-to-describe components of society to be able to even suggest how they might contribute to a social goal. There might be personal opinions about any of these components, as to how they work and how they might be bent to supporting a social goal, but there is certainly no scientific understanding of the various processes that occur within each of them. Perhaps the only conclusion that can be made is that science would need to be devoted to understanding these basic social processes as the very first step of the construction of a socio-economic system that supports a goal, such as technology progress. It could be that the prevalence of war in human history has pushed technology to examine offensive and defensive technologies, but not technologies in the larger part of society. It is likely time to remedy that situation.

Balancing Trade

Trade imbalances can produce many benefits to a nation or other entity, just not net over the entire nation.

Trade is often thought of as goods moving across borders, and that is convenient for many purposes. The obvious generalization is to anything that moves across borders, whether it is people, manufactured goods, agricultural goods, ideas, various financial objects, or whatever. The generalization is useful in that it allows one to contrast trade in goods to the exchange of anything else, and possible gain some insight.

Something is inside at least one of the borders, but there doesn’t necessarily have to be an equivalent entity on the other side of the border in question. Balance means there are two specific entities, typically geographic, but not necessarily. Equivalent entity trade would be between two hemispheres, two continents, two nations or groups of nations, two states or provinces or whatever is the next division below nation, two counties or parishes or whatever is the next below states, and even down to two boroughs, or regions of one city. Single entity trade is between any one of these entities and the rest of the world. There might be two entities involved in the balance, or a thousand; with multiple entities there is a network of trade and otherwise it is simply bipolar.

What might be the benefits of balanced trade, either in some single well-defined category, or some larger quantity lumping together some set of categories? The seemingly obvious flaw with unbalanced trade is that something must compensate for the imbalance. Either the entity with the deficit in exports is agreeing to pay for the difference in trade sometime in the future or with fixed assets in the country. If the imbalance is only temporary, the fluctuations in the direction of trade balancing out over time, then imbalance is only an accounting convenience, and disappears over a long enough duration. If instead it is chronic, and the total amount accumulates with each reporting period, then after some number of periods, the debt situation fails to work. The total debt becomes too large and there is either a default or a tendering of some assets of the country to the trade principals with net surpluses.

It might be possible to talk about the short-term aspect of trade imbalance separately from the long-term aspect. In the short term, a country with a shortage simply runs an arrears for the goods it imports in excess of the goods it exports. It might seem to be doing quite well, if the costs for the total of the excess do not grow too large. The country would have a standard of living, defined any which way as a measure of how much is consumed, and that standard of living would certainly be higher than if there were no trade. But debtors always live higher than those who live within their means. The argument that the debtor is therefore somehow better off can only be made by using a very restricted use of the term ‘better off’. A consumer debtor is not ‘better off’ if some long-term integrated measure is used.

This is a contrast with the producer debtor, who might be using near-term capital to become more productive and gain the amount needed to pay off his debt, while still producing more goods than this amount. The question of when a producer debtor is ‘better off’ is more complicated that for a consumer debtor, and depends on the use of the debt amounts, the repayment terms and any other obligations, what the expectation is of his current and future productivity and how much credibility there is in these estimates, and probably a half dozen or more other factors. But the question of the consumer debtor is simple, unless there are more than one.

If a country, or other entity, thinking of allowing a trade imbalance to exist in a chronic fashion, consists of multiple separate factions, with different powers and different assets, then the division into factions might influence the decision to allow the chronic trade imbalance. Who gains and who pays is the question. If there is a separation of these activities between factions, with one set of factions gaining the increased standard of living or some other benefit from imbalanced trade, and the other complementary set of factions being responsible for paying in the long term for them, then the decision might be taken in a somewhat non-holistic way. If the factions that benefit but do not carry the burden of long-term disadvantage also control the governance of the entity, then they would certainly have the motivation to allow chronic trade imbalance. Whether they could do this would depend on how the governance was organized, for example, if there was a constitutional or customary rule that trade must be balanced, then obviously they would be prevented from taking advantage of the separation into factions in this way, until the constitutional or customary rule could be bypassed or revoked.

There could be multiple other benefits that do not fall equally to the different factions within an entity, and multiple other disadvantages that also do not fall equally. Thus, to assess if the entity is likely to permit chronic trade imbalance two factors need to be addressed: the regulatory posture of the entity as a whole, as to whether it would permit trade imbalances, however they might be measured, and the net benefit less disadvantages of the factions which have control over the decision-making on allowing chronic trade imbalances. If there are no checks or barriers for this, for example, if there were sufficient public relations output promoting it and little opposing it and no historical custom to disallow chronic trade imbalances, and some net benefit would go to the factions making the decisions, then they might certainly consider it.

As to historical custom, if chronic trade imbalances were used for long periods by one set of factions, perhaps a changing set of factions, then the custom would be in this particular entity to allow it, despite the overall net disadvantage of it. Such a long period of use of chronic trade imbalances by one set of factions would also allow plenty of time for there to have been justifications, clever or absurd, created for it, even though a sufficiently high-altitude look at it shows the overall net disadvantage. The justifications could concentrate on the differential benefits, in the short-term, and ignore the integrative disadvantages, in the long-term, and if the justifications were sufficiently convincing, eloquent, erudite and obfuscating, then there would be little in the way of barriers to the use of chronic trade imbalances on the part of one set of factions to obtain a net benefit over both the short-term and the long-term.

Once constitutional regulations, historical custom, commonly held discourse and other potential obstacles are all removed or relegated to being inconsequential, the factions with decision-making authority or influence could simply go forward and make the necessary arrangements within and without the entity to induce chronic trade imbalances. Any objections to the arrangements could be dismissed as issuing from those who are uneducated as to the details of the processes that are about to take place, or rather, have been taking place for some extended duration. An even more solid buttress against objections can be constructed if one of the factions that receives net benefits from chronic trade imbalances is the one which generates the large body of discourse on the topic. With this additional impetus, the literature would continue to be amassed on the side of the differential benefits, and the integrative holistic disadvantages could continue to be ignored.

Perhaps the most serious concern the successful set of factions would have would be the constituent parts of the group, and any efforts by some of the factions to oust others, thereby possibly concentrating these net benefits into fewer hands and thus magnifying their amounts per individual. There would seem to be a minimal set of factions necessary to organize such a takeover of the trade situation, and any other faction might be a candidate for ousting, at some time. The minimal set would consist of those involved with regulatory matters relating to trade, imbalances or other aspects, those involved with the justification of the chronic imbalance and the publication of the justification together with the suppression or at least the ignoring of any counter-arguments, and those involved in the trade process. The trade process could be quite complicated, involving many moving parts, including shipping, outside-the-entity production, inside-the-entity distribution, financial arrangements for all of this, inter-entity transportation, plus governmental regulation of any and all of this. Finally, somehow the flow of benefits has to be arranged for, as there is not necessary flow between these factions comprising the minimal set. Some processes would have to be grafted onto the trade process itself to ensure that the necessary factions all receive some share in the factional benefits gained by chronic trade imbalances. But this type of flow would not have to be overt or else could be overt but disguised in any of a huge number of ways, most of which might be laudable under some rationalizations.

Thus, chronic trade imbalances between any two entities, or between one entity and the rest of the world, might induce significant advantages to a set of factions which somehow collect all the power necessary to organize it and keep it in place. This arrangement does not have to be thought up by some genius of chronic trade imbalances, but can grow over a long period of history, if this situation continues to exist.