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.

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