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John Hospers on His Friendship with Ayn Rand Video

John Hospers talks about his friendship with Ayn Rand at an International Society of Individual Liberty event in 1996. He talks about her mannerisms and aesthetic tastes, her writing style, the kinds of people she surrounded herself with, and memorable conversations they shared regarding philosophy.

John Hospers was professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Southern California. He was also the first Libertarian Party Presidential candidate in 1972.


John Hospers From 1776 to 1984 Video



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John Hospers was professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Southern California. He was also the first Libertarian Party Presidential candidate in 1972. He passed away in 2011.

In this video from a Libertarian International conference in London, England in 1984, Hospers compares 1984 (and Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell’s popular novel) to 1776, the year of the American Revolution. Hospers speaks about everything from dystopia to new technology to the inevitable failure of global communism.


On Being Equal

By John Hospers

Let’s suppose we all start out equally, say with $1000. How long would this equality last?

free-money-for-everybody-equality-john-hospersSome people would spend the whole thousand the same day and be penniless by nightfall. Others would spend it in a week, others in a month. Still others would put the money to work: in a bank, to collect interest; or in stocks or bonds; or as down payment on a farm or shop. The most adventurous ones would put the whole $1000 into some such new enterprise and even borrow, at interest, from others. With this they would buy a plant and materials, and put other people to work. These workers would then be able to save their original $1000 and spend only out of what they had earned. But they would not have been able to do this if the enterprising people had not created the businesses that provided them the work.

And so by the end of a year, let us say, some would have nothing, some would have part of the original thousand, and others would have multiplied the original amount many times over. They would end up with unequal incomes.

Suppose now that the government intervened to make it all equal again. Those who had nothing left would get $1000. Those who had $100 left would get $900. Those who had more than $1000 would have to give up the surplus to provide the others with what they had spent. What would happen now?

Those who had spent it before would spend it again, believing that the government would reimburse them for what they had spent. Those who previously had spent some but not all of it would now spend it all, knowing they’d get more from the government the more they spent. And what of those who had multiplied their returns? They’d be very cautious about doing it again, believing that it would only be taken away from them at the end of another year. So they’d probably spend it too. But if everyone did that, whence would come the goodies to be distributed the following year?

The moral of this little tale is very simple: if everyone received the same income no matter what each did, soon there would be nothing left to distribute. There would be equality, but equality of zero. If people are to achieve anything, they must be able to keep at least a good part of what they have earned; otherwise there will be no point in trying to improve themselves by earning more-while incidentally providing employment for others.

Commensurate Rewards

People’s achievements are unequal. People’s labors are unequal. People’s efforts are unequal. Accordingly, it is only natural that their rewards should be unequal.

But some people object if rewards are unequal. Many a person, seeing others earn more income than himself, says: “They’re getting too much! Take it away from them!” A professional robber will do the job himself and hold up the other person at gunpoint, or burglarize his house while he’s away. But most people don’t dare risk this. They do it another way. They vote for senators and representatives who will in turn vote in Congress to take it away from those who have earned it, so that it can be given to those who have not. Not wanting to take the risks and see the blood themselves, they hire a stick-up man who will use force and threat of force to do the job.

Doing the stick-up job via one’s congressman may give some people a kind of satisfaction-it has brought the achiever down to their level. But by doing this they have, of course, robbed the man who earned it; not only that, in the end they have robbed themselves too. They may be accustomed to having consumer goods which the achiever has produced; and if they keep on taking his income away from him, finally he won’t care to produce any more. Why go to the trouble and expense, and risk of laying his money on the line for uncertain returns, if it’s only going to be taken away from him anyway? Aside from the loss of motivation to produce, in the end he won’t be able to produce.

To produce, the achiever has to have capital, to keep his equipment renewed, to pay his workers, to modernize his plant. He won’t be able to do any of these things if he can’t keep what he earns. And when the factory closes, his employees will be out of work. So there are already several disadvantages to this scheme: he will be bankrupt, the employees will no longer have work, and the consumers will be without a product they had before.

Yet in spite of this, many people are envious of those who succeed. “We should all be equal,” they say, “not only before the law, but in income.” The people who say this are usually the people who don’t produce anything and want to be taken care of by the people who do.

Imitate Success

Let us not try to take it away from the man who succeeds. Let us not even envy him; rather let us try to emulate him if we can. Meanwhile, let us realize how much we depend on him. Those to whom we owe the debt, we would not be able to repay in a hundred lifetimes. How many lifetimes do you think it would take you or me to repay Thomas Edison for all he did to advance the human condition? When you pick up a telephone, think of the thousands of people whose efforts have made it possible for you to dial and reach in a few seconds a person three thousand miles away. Could you have done it yourself? No? Then don’t resent or rob the persons who did-not as long as you desire to use the services they have made available to you.

And remember that those who make a lot of money are no threat to you. If you don’t like the rock singer who earns half a million a year, remember that you don’t have to patronize him. You don’t have to contribute one penny to his success. Whether or not he succeeds is entirely up to consumers of his product. As long as he earns his money from those who voluntarily pay to hear him, you have no reason to resent him. You are perfectly free to ignore him – which is more than you can say of the government. You pay not one penny of extra tax because of his success. In fact you probably pay less because he pays more.

There’s another point often forgotten. No person can produce a product or a service on the free market by forcibly taking money from other people. He may spend all his money and borrow more to start up a business that makes a new product, and if he earns a million dollars from it (and the chances are very much against this) the only way he can do it is to produce in quantity a product that millions of people are willing to buy at the price for which he offers it. And they will do that only if the product is better or cheaper than the competition offers.

The president of General Motors is an influential man, but he has no power to arrest you if you don’t buy his products, or to try you or fine you or jail you if you refuse. He offers you a product at a price, and if you don’t want to pay the price you can turn to someone else. At least that’s the way things are in a free competitive society. Competition keeps the price down, and keeps the producers always on their toes.

Why Governments So Often Behave Irresponsibly

It’s all very different with government, of course. When the government does something, it doesn’t have to make money; almost always the government enterprise loses money, and spreads the loss to you and the other taxpayers. There is no competition to keep the price down, for the government creates a monopoly. The government-operated Post Office Department won’t permit anyone else to handle first-class mail. If it did, the Post Office Department would be out of business in a week. It can maintain its status only by being a monopoly. Nor is there any great incentive to offer efficient service, or to serve you well. After all, if you don’t like it, what can you do about it? You can’t go to any private handler of mail because that’s not permitted. You have to go through the government or not have such a service at all-and they know it. That’s why government personnel are often so cynical and so inefficient. That’s why bureaucracy is always unwieldy and wasteful: the money they’re using is not their own money, but yours.

If a person is spending money he earned himself, he is usually pretty careful about how he spends it because he knows how hard it was to acquire (if he does spend it wildly, then he’s broke, and that’s his problem, not yours). But if he’s a government official, and has millions of your dollars to spend, he won’t be nearly as careful – he probably won’t be careful at all. Would you be as careful how you spent it if you suddenly had a million dollars of other people’s money to spend, and even if you misspent it or wasted it you knew you could tax people and get more where that came from?

But most people seem confused about this difference. They don’t see that when a corporation president buys a yacht, no one else is taxed to help pay for it. But when the president of the United States gets a yacht, the taxpayers will have paid for it down to the last bolt and screw.

Is It Worth It?

Sometimes the service you get in return for your tax dollar may be worth it. Maybe the president is worth what he gets. Maybe congressmen are too, though at the moment many seem to be largely concerned with spending taxpayers’ money. Sometimes the police are worth it: that depends on where you live and how much you need them and how well they respond to those needs. But many others are not-especially the endless array of government regulators in the thousands of government agencies, who dream up one regulation after another by which they can cripple your business and bury you in unnecessary paper work filling out their forms, and take out of your paycheck in taxes the money they use to regulate you. They may not know anything about your business, but they can still force you to conduct it their way.

And so it comes to this: there are producers and nonproducers. People produce in various ways: new products, new versions of old products, services, inventions, ideas; both workers and managers are producers, each in his own way. Nonproducers, by and large, are to be found on the receiving end of a government payout, paid for out of your labor.

This, of course, places an ever heavier burden on the producers. If they are squeezed much further, production for trade will finally cease, and we shall be in a state of splendidly equalized destitution. It is time that we brought this mania for equality to a halt. For if we do not, we shall indeed all be equal, in poverty and starvation.

Another Look at Anarchy and Freedom

By John Hospers

Libertarians have often said, and by and large it seems to be true, that professors of philosophy in the universities of both the United States and the rest of the “civilized” world-not to mention professors of sociology, economics and political science-are either extreme statists or moderate statists. Most of them do not understand the free market and they have no respect for it or patience with it.

Professor Richard Taylor of the University of Rochester, New York, is a conspicuous exception to this generalization. He is extremely skeptical of the institution of the state. “Government,” he says (p. 94) “is the coercion through threat and force of the many by the few.” And among the various forms of government, he has as many cavils about democracy as about any other, especially when its real workings are glossed lover with the trite formula “We’re really ruling ourselves.” Even if the rulers or rules can be shown to be good, wise and farseeing, this gives them no claim to rule others: “The declaration, ‘I am a wise and good man,’ might be followed by . . . ‘Therefore, I am entitled to command you and you are obligated to obey,’ but the relationship of the two declarations is one of mere sequence. The word ‘therefore,’ irrelevantly appearing between them, is purely decorative and expresses no rational connection at alI.” (p. 103.)

To give the reader some idea of the intellectual tone of this book, as well as its inimitable style, I am going to quote one choice passage in full.

Taylor imagines, in a little fable he constructs, a society of human beings living at peace with one another, until in the course of time, . . . they begin to find men encamped here and there in what they had thought of as their homeland, men whose numbers greatly increase with time, until it becomes almost impossible to venture out without encountering them. They detect in them a patronizing attitude toward themselves and find that these men are all accompanied by, or can quickly summon, armed servant; ready at an instant to do their bidding.

These servants keep a close eye on things, noting the comings and goings of the people and speculating on their purposes, from time to time peering into their windows to see what is going on there, noting down all their impressions, and regularly sending these along to someone they deferentially refer to as The Man. They also come around occasionally to help themselves to a certain fraction of the contents of everyone’s pockets, according to a formula provided by The Man. Eventually it is discovered that high fences have gone up around the entire periphery of the place, intended, the people learn, to keep everyone inside. In case anyone should want to leave, to go through this high fence, he must first seek permission from The Man. Such permission, one is assured, will probably not be withheld, provided it is first established that the applicant has not violated any of a long and complex list of rules. These rules of course emanate from The Man-but not in any arbitrary or despotic way. Not at all. The people are themselves, they learn, the authors of them, at least for all practical purposes. Indeed, the Man and his servants make and enforce all these rules only with the prior consent of the people who must obey them. This is ensured in the most obvious and foolproof way imaginable, by their being given the opportunity every few years of writing The Man a letter-or at least, those who have obeyed all the rules are allowed to do this; the others are not. The letter is very succinct and to the point; so brief, in fact, that it contains only the single word “yes” or “no,” which is meant to express how its author feels about The Man and his latest rules: In time this right of sending the letter, at quadrennial intervals, comes to be represented as the most precious blessing anyone can possess, far exceeding in its importance any interest he may have in anything else. It matters little what else one is allowed or forbidden to do as long as he is allowed to write this short letter every few years; for without this, he has no freedoms at all, whereas with this one, he has them all. At least, so everyone is told. No one actually looks at these letters, of course, except to pile them into two stacks and see which is higher; but they do serve the overwhelmingly important purpose of ensuring that the people who write them are free men, governed by their own consent, and of demonstrating that the often frivolous and sometimes galling rules enforced at every turn at the point of a gun do not really in any way delimit anyone’s freedom at all. On the contrary, they guarantee for everyone a higher order of freedom. Nor are the rules really concocted by The Man, notwithstanding appearances, but by the people themselves, for that is what they were really doing, the last time they sent him their terse and friendly letters.

About half of the rules make sense. People are not supposed to go around hitting each other, for instance, nor taking each other’s money without asking. The Man can take their money without asking, to be sure; in fact, once each year he sends agents around to reach into the people’ pockets and take a fixed proportion of what they find there. If the agents meet with resistance, they end up taking whatever they want. But this is all right, since the people in effect told them they could do this by writing “yes” in their last letter. Or, in the case of those who did not, then their neighbors did this for them. In any case, someone said “yes,” which can accordingly be taken as the expressing of each man’s will.

So about half of the rules have some sense to them. The rest, however, are pulled out of a hat.

People propose rules-any rules, it doesn’t matter what they are-and these are all dropped into a hat and from time to time randomly drawn out. One of them is to the effect that no one may drink goat’s milk except at certain hours and in certain precisely defined areas, and at exorbitant cost, most of the cost of it being a hidden tax that goes to The Man. Many people have an inordinate fondness for goat’s milk, but some who tried it did not like it; so they put in the hat the rule that no one should ever have it at all, and that rule somehow got drawn from the hat. For awhile it was vigorously enforced, until modified by The Man in response to public clamor on the one hand and his desire for more revenue on the other. Another such rule, not so old and hence still uncompromisingly enforced, is that one may never drink tea, even at home, nor even possess it, even in molecular quantities.

This rule was originally one of those drawn from the hat, of course, but it came to be represented as expressing the most basic of all those virtues that are traceable to the founding fathers and, some say, to God. Thus, in order to avoid public disgrace, a person has to sneak into a remote cave and there, in the darkness and isolation, proceed to brew it; if he is discovered, he is stripped, for the time being and perhaps for life, of the most basic human right to send a quadrennial letter to The Man, is made to turn over a considerable portion of his possessions, or else has obloquy heaped upon him and is locked up for years in one of the many zoos built for this purpose. Far worse than this, however, is selling tea-an act that is made the more hazardous by the fact that The Man pays his servants to be purchasers of it in order to trap people into selling it so he can send them off to the zoos.

There are many rules like that, drawn from the hat. In time some of them become obsolescent and are left unenforced, or are enforced only sporadically at the whim of The Man’s armed servants; but others are always drawn from the hat to replace them. One of them, for example, requires that no adult male share his life with an adult female not related by blood without first obtaining The Man’s permission and submitting to certain ritualistic procedures.

Having once got this permission, gone through with the required forms, and begun such an arrangement, he may not then dissolve it without again soliciting permission from The Man, and this permission is given only with reluctance, if at all. One may not take two or more such persons under his roof under any circumstances whatever, at least not at the same time, The Man insisting on zealous enforcement of this rule always, having declared it to be essential to something or other. [pp. 15-17.]

There-no libertarian could have said it better. But Professor Taylor does believe there should be a government, and that it should have certain limited powers. One of his main tasks is to state and defend a view of what those powers should be. He quotes John Stuart Mill’s famous passage in ON LIBERTY, that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (and other passages by Mill to the same effect), and says that Mill provides no criterion at all, since he provides no clear definition of what constitutes “harm” (p. 57). If we construe the term “harm” narrowly, limiting it to bodily injury, then the principle would not protect us against theft and fraud; such a definition would expand individual liberty far beyond any reasonable limit and leaves us free to do anything we want to others short of bodily injuring them. But if we adopt a wider criterion of harm, we end up with no individual freedom whatever, for many people may feel more harmed and actually be more harmed, though not necessarily in a physical way, by having their cherished beliefs questioned, or by the actions of those whom they don’t consider patriotic, or who have long hair or get drunk or dress in a way they don’t like, than by robbery or trespass. On this criterion, virtually all actions would be prohibited, because they would “harm” someone or other.


Mill, as if aware of this, amended his principle to read that the liberty of the individual encompasses “all that portion of a person’s life and conduct which affects only himself”-but not that which adversely affects others. But this reformulation, as Taylor sees rightly, is a catastrophe:

One is free to be a drunk provided this does not adversely affect others. What others? And how adversely? Mill specifically mentions one’s children and one’s creditors-but having mentioned these, at what point shall we stop? Shall we include representatives of the Christian Temperance League? If not, why not? Indeed, the whole principle virtually explodes in its author’s face when he finds that it permits judicial restraint of those whose styles of conduct are “offenses against decency” and “violations of good manners,” and draws the appropriate inference . . . that such behavior should indeed be suppressed! Clearly this is no principle of liberty at all, but an instrument for grinding men down to conform to someone’s conception of “decency” and “good manners.” [pp. 59-60.]

What criterion, then, can we find acceptable, if not the first one which is too permissive and the second one which is too restrictive? At this point the libertarian claims that he has a solution; but, so far as can be discerned, Taylor has never read any of the literature of libertarianism, and knows nothing of its basic philosophy. His attempt to generate a criterion of his own, then, is all the more interesting.

To solve the Problem Taylor draws a distinction between “natural injury” and “conventional injury.” A natural injury is anything that evokes deep resentment on the part of the injured party, “by virtue of his very nature as a man.” A conventional injury is something one resents not by virtue of his humanity but because of what he has learned or how he has been conditioned by his culture (p. 63). The eating of pork and the desecration of religious or patriotic symbols are conventional injuries; being murdered, clubbed, robbed of the fruits 01 one’s labor are natural injuries and resented by people in all cultures. There are, says Taylor, only three ways in which people may “naturally” injure each other: (1) assault, (2) theft, and (3) fraud. No one needs to be taught “that an assault upon himself is something bad, nor does anyone suppose that the evil of such an action is a mere consequence of some edict, declaration, or law.” (p. 62.)

Each of these three terms is vague, of course, but not too vague to be manageable. ” [A] violent blow to a man is . . . an assault-but so is deliberately driving him mad by forcing him to swallow a dangerous drug . . . . [D] epriving a man of his property by spreading lies about him can be thought of as a species of theft, being essentially no different from physical divestment or seizure of his goods.” (p. 62.) But among the things not to be counted as injuries are offenses to taste or sensibility, e.g., offensive language and eccentric styles of dress. He goes into much more detail about this, but his limitation on each of these categories is fairly specific (Chapter 10).

Much could be said about his rationale for arriving at these categories: some libertarians would say that he should, like Rand, have developed a doctrine of natural rights from which these conclusions follow, and others that he should have gone in more for Aquinas and the tradition of natural law (which he does to some extent). At any rate, it turns out that the very categories of acts that should be called crime according to Taylor-as well as those that should not-are virtually identical with those that libertarians themselves have set forth. Dearest of all to the hearts of libertarians will be Taylor’s remarks on “victimless crimes”:

What one does with his own body and mind, whether he uses drugs, intoxicants, poisons, stimulants, or whatnot, whether he engages in activities dangerous to his own well-being, whether he takes certain obvious precautions for his own safety, such as wearing certain safety devices on the public highways or locking up his belongings, are beyond the concern of any legislator. . . .

. . . [AI legislator may ask concerning any practice whatever: Not whether it is in keeping with morality; not whether it accords with the ordinary standards of decency; not whether it reflects civilized manners; not whether it is offensive to the sensibilities of law-abiding citizens; not whether it clashes with the cultural and religious heritage of his society; not whether it is perhaps pointless, foolish, and profitless; not whether it is in keeping with the minimum standards of personal conduct; and not (even) whether it is perhaps extremely dangerous (to him, alone, who undertakes it). . . . . . . [T] he lawmaker may ask only: Is it injurious to anyone but the agent? And if he is able to answer “yes” to that question, then he needs to ask still another: Is the injury thus wrought of a kind that would be felt by all or most men, independently of their training, customs, and conventions? And only if that question, which is a question of sociology rather than one of jurisprudence, can yield no answer but “yes” does the lawmaker have any concern with the practice at all. The morality of citizens, whether what they are doing is right or wrong, or whether they even know the difference between right and wrong, is of no more concern to him than to any ignorant and idle meddler. [pp. 68-69.]


What, then, is the justification for the existence of the state, and for obedience to its laws?

It is inherently coercive, and most of the “justifications” for our obeying its mandates are quite patently false. The democratic apologia, that “after all we govern ourselves,” is quite ridiculous: not only did you and I not originate a single law, but in a democracy we are subject to laws just because the majority have agreed to it (which is not even true in present-day democracies); a majority could well enslave a minority, and for the minority to be told that they are really free because they had a chance to cast their vote would be untrue and hypocritical (Chapter 15); “We’ve all taken a vote and have decided that you’re to serve us for the rest of your life.” Equally ridiculous is the contract theory in all its forms: you and I neither explicitly not implicitly agreed contractually to obey the laws of the state into which we happen to have been born. Taylor considers different varieties of contract, and concludes (correctly, I believe) that our relation to the state fulfills none of them (Chapter 16).

“The ultimate justification of the state, if it has any, can only be its expansion and enhancement of freedom” (p. 118)-the freedom of every citizen. Not even his happiness-this the state cannot bring about, and should not even if it could, this being left to the voluntary activities of individuals-but his freedom. But how can the state do this? “The state does not at all resemble . . . any instrument for the enhancement of freedom. On the contrary, coercion is inseparable from it . , . .” (p. 118.) Yet the state can, in certain respects, be an effective guarantor of freedom. Let us see how, according to Taylor, this is the case. Freedom, he says (Chapter 171, has two aspects, the negative and the positive:

(a) The negative aspect is the more familiar. Because the state prohibits and punishes crimes-assault, theft, fraud-it protects citizens against aggression and thus protects their freedom to pursue their chosen peaceful pursuits. Properly enacted and enforced, the criminal law takes away no freedom except the freedom to injure others (Chapter 18). The form of government does not matter here: even if the government were a hereditary despotism, if it limited its activities to protecting the citizens against these aggressions, it would be promoting their freedom.

(b) Those who focus only on the criminal law often forget that there is another aspect of freedom which government enhances, in fact makes possible, and that is enablement (Chapter 17). Someone wishes to adopt children, and the law places no obstacles in their way; but this doesn’t enable him to do it, since “by its very silence it provides no means.” Couldn’t he just go ahead and adopt children as he pleased? No, nothing he might do would count as adopting a child. “He might . . . go around gathering up homeless children and bringing them home; but then someone else might gather up the same children a week later, and he would have accomplished nothing at all.” (p. 120.) Or suppose a person wants to keep hunters away from his farm, and that nothing in the law prohibits this; but he still isn’t free to do it, for he cannot . . . even give meaning to the idea of his farm or distinguish it from anything else in the countryside, without a title or deed which defines its boundaries and law which protects his claims to it. Without these, every hunter in the county is perfectly entitled to demolish the woodlands as he pleases and slaughter away to his heart’s content, having at least as much right to these lands as their ‘owner’; for without law, and the state to enforce it, no meaning can be given to the idea of an owner. [p. 120.]

Freedom in this sense is not only compromised, it is completely impossible except within the framework of a legal order.

‘ Limited-government libertarians are likely to reply “yes” to these points of Taylor: government, only if it is limited in the way described, enhances freedom and indeed (in some respects) makes it possible. But of course there are anarchist libertarians too, who have defended in detail the thesis that the criminal law and issues of enablement can be handled by an interlocking system of private defense agencies, arbitration agencies, and insurance companies: see Morris and Linda Tannehill, THE MARKET FOR LIBERTY, and Murray Rothbard, FOR A NEW LIBERTY. And although many objections have been made to all this-e.g., that dealing in defense is quite different from dealing in other services, and the “defenders” might collude to provide no defense at all and dominate the area by force of arms-the champions of anarchy have other arguments in rebuttal, and anyway they can correctly point out that governments suffer from equal or greater dangers in this regard.

What of Taylor’s thesis concerning enablement? Here again the anarchist will say that such benefits can be conferred by competing agencies, hired by individuals, as well as or better than by the state. But there I see problems, though anarchists might present arguments that would convince me that they muld be overcome. At any rate, Taylor, presumably not having read the libertarian-anarchist literature, sees no alternative but the state to handle the twin issues of (a) aggression and (b) enablement.


The state, then, says Taylor, has some use, though a limited one. I shall conclude with a few examples of cases in which Taylor believes the state is quite rightly involved, indicate why he thinks it should be (and whether this is consistent with his previous allegations about the function of the state), and (sometimes) whether libertarians would agree and why.

1. Taylor believes that some areas of land should be publicly owned so that everyone may have access to them: if the private ownership of land is extended to the private ownership of areas used exclusively for recreation, such as seashores and parks (p. 35), then only a few persons may be able to enjoy them and the rest of us are deprived of their use. Therefore they should be “publicly owned” (i.e., owned by the state).

It is certainly not clear how state ownership of such lands falls under one or another of the three areas in which government action is called for according to Taylor; what crime of assault, theft, or fraud is committed by those who (privately) own such lands? It seems likely to me that Taylor has not heard of any viable alternative to state ownership here, since he has apparently not read Rothbard and the other free market theorists who have presented and defended their case on the matter. Such a defense, as most libertarians doubtless know, would proceed somewhat as follows: there is a market for wilderness-freaks and beach-freaks just as much as for those who would buy the land in order to cut down the forests-lots of people “want to get away from it all” and are willing to pay for the privilege of doing it. In a country in which all land was privately owned, many, at leasl, of the scenic and recreation areas would be owned by those who, for a fee, would enable others to use them for boating, camping, hiking, and exploring. (The National Park Service, a government agency, charges money for this now, on top of the taxes that we all pay to maintain these government lands whether we use them or not.)

2. Another example is pollution, which has become so severe that today “there is no hope whatsoever or bringing it under control except by restraint imposed by the state.” (p. 132.) Here, he says, “reason and good will and recognition of an evil, even if universal, are of little help, and the only hope lies in strong law vigorously enforced.” Again, I wonder whether Taylor would have maintained this view, in the face of his previously described theories of what should be called crimes, if he had read the libertarian literature on the subject. The polluter is, after all, violating the property rights of whoever else’s property he pollutes, not to mention the persons of the individuals whose lungs hi:; products pollute. Taylor agrees that there are crimes against both persons and property, and pollution often falls under both. The polluter would be sued in the courts like any other trespasser. So laws governing pollution are not required to deal with the problem.

3. “[M] any species of wildlife would be quickly eradicated were it not for the protection of the state. Men in general agree that such wildlife should be preserved . . . and yet only the state, through the creation and enforcement of law, can provide such protection and regulation.” (p. 132.) Now this one may present more of a problem. Some libertarians don’t care whether the wildlife is preserved or not.

Others do care, but do not want to see coercion exercised. Some would put forward a doctrine of the rights of animals-but, in view of the fact that there is a competition for life throughout the animal kingdom, that man is the only animal that survives by his rational faculty and most of the other living beings survive by killing and eating each other, any account of the rights of animals faces such overwhelming problems that I have yet to see a single satisfactory account of this matter by anyone.

Again, it is not clear how the killing of wildlife falls under any of the three categories of ‘ crime Taylor has previously delineated. Why then does he wish to make it one? His reasoning here is extremely interesting, of a kind well known to students of philosophy in many a contemporary book on ethics, but not much known to the libertarian community: (a) that there are some highly desirable ends that can be achieved only if everyone cooperates in-achieving them, and (b) the only way everyone will cooperate is by being coerced by law into doing so.

Thus, Taylor describes what he thinks would happen if there were no laws protecting wild species: Without the intervention of the state, there would be unrestrained competition for these [species of wildlife], followed soon by total extinction. Men do not voluntarily restrain themselves from such temptation; and even if hunters agreed to a man that a given species of animal should never be hunted, they would nevertheless hunt it simply from the justified conviction that if they did not, others would. [p. 132.1 [Emphasis added.] In other words, even if 99 percent cooperated, the one percent could kill off the species; so we must have laws protecting the species.

The contemporary philosopher Colin Strang (“What if Everyone Did That?” in Baruch Brody (ed.), MORALITY AND PARTICULAR CIRCUMSTANC€S, Prentice-Hall, 1970) even defends selective service by a similar line of reasoning: The enemy threatens. A mere handful volunteer. The writing is on the wall: my volunteering will not affect the outcome. But conscript me with the rest to stay the deluge and I will come without a murmur. No good will come of my volunteering as long as millions of others don’t do so at the same time; but great good will come of a general conscription which gathers me in with the rest.

He then goes on to say that my volunteering may do positive harm, e.g., if all who resist and survive will be executed; but if a million others fight together (possible only by conscription), we shall win the day. (This whole line or argument, called “the generalization argument,” is set forth and defended in detail in Professor Marcus Singer’s book GENERALIZATION IN ETHICS, and has been chewed over, ramified, attacked, and revised, in many dozens of reviews of this book in philosophical journals from 1961 to the present.)


The Meanings of Freedom

by John Hospers

John Hospers is a professor in the Department of  Philosophy at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. He was the  first Libertarian Party  candidate for the presidency of the United States  (1972). He is the editor of the philosophical magazine.

Everyone, it seems, is in favor of freedom. Amnesty International works  constantly to bring about the freedom of prisoners in totalitarian nations,  especially from torture and degradation. The A.C.L.U. wishes to extend freedom  in the direction of civil liberties, even while it recommends that a Soviet  youth be forced to return to the U.S.S.R. because his parents wish it. The  Soviet Union itself proclaims its dedication to the “freedom of the Soviet  peoples” from the “exploitation” of Western capitalism.

But what is this value that everyone proclaims, at least in words? Without a  context, what is being said is far from clear. If you heard a stranger exclaim “I’m free!” what would you be entitled to infer? Perhaps he has just got out of  jail; perhaps he has just been divorced; perhaps he has just recovered from an  operation; perhaps he has overcome an allergy, or been successfully treated by a  psychoanalyst. Like so many words, “freedom” and “liberty” have come to refer to  almost any kind of condition of which the speaker approves. When this happens,  it is time to clarify our use of the term, so that it refers to something  definite enough to convey a clear meaning in our effort to communicate with one  another.

Freedom-from vs. Freedom-to

The most important distinction in the discussion of freedom is between freedom-from and freedom-to. The Soviet expatriate in the U.S. is  free from the dictatorship to which he was subject in the U.S.S.R.; the American  businessman, after a regulatory act has been repealed, is now free from the  restrictions imposed by that regulation. But once this freedom-from has been  obtained, a person is free to do many things he could not do before: the  Soviet expatriate is now free to choose his own line of work, to buy property,  to become an entrepreneur and hire workers, and so on; the businessman is free  to conduct his business in a way he was legally prohibited from doing before.  The more one is free from restrictions, the more one is free to do  things that he could not do while bound by restrictions.

The two are thus intimately related, but they are not quite two sides of the  same coin. If I go mountain-climbing and fall into a crevasse, I am not free to  move about, or do anything but remain there until help arrives; my choices are  extremely limited. And yet, if I went on the expedition voluntarily, there is no  question of my lacking free-dora-from: nobody made me go, I was not responding  to anyone’s command, nobody coerced me. My present sad plight with regard to  freedom-to is not the result of any lack of freedom-from. True, I am not  free-from obstacles to my getting out of the crevasse—such as the height of the  pit and the lack of rope, etc.—but there are no man-made constraints. Much,  then, depends on whether freedom-from is considered freedom from constraints or  obstacles in general, or whether it is free-dom from man- made  constraints and obstacles.

Freedom from the Will of Others: The Absence of  Coercion

“The original meaning of the word ‘freedom,’” writes Hayek, “meant always the  possibility of a person’s acting according to his own decisions and  plans, in contrast to the position of one who was irrevocably subject to the  will of another, who by arbitrary decision could coerce him to act or not to act  in specific ways. The time-honored phrase by which this freedom has often been  described is therefore independence of the arbitrary will of another. In  this sense ‘freedom’ refers solely to a relation of human beings to other human  beings, and the only infringement on it is by coercion by other human  beings.”[1](Voluntary compliance with the wishes of others is simply honoring their  suggestions or taking their advice, which involves no lack of freedom.)

Freedom-from in this sense is absence of coercion by others; and this, in  addition to being the fundamental and original sense of the term, is undoubtedly  the most important kind (but, as we shall see, not the only kind) of  freedom-from. But this definition in turn requires that we be quite clear about  the meaning of the term “coercion.” What is coercion? Let us examine a few  cases:

1. A man, stronger than I, forces my hand on the trigger of a loaded gun, and  with the strength of his hand on mine forces me to pull the trigger. Is he  coercing me? He is certainly using force to get me to do his bidding, and if  that is coercion, I am being coerced. But the act of pulling the trigger is not  my act; both morally and legally, it is his act, and he is the  killer, not I. I have not done anything: I am the passive victim, he the  agent. I have not performed a coerced action; I have not performed any action at  all.

2. A man with a gun at my back threatens to shoot me if I refuse to hand over  my wallet. Rather than surrender my life, I surrender my wallet. Here indeed I  have been coerced: I have done something, but I have done under coercion what I  would not have done of my own free will (surrendered my wallet). I still had a  choice, but my choices were limited by his coercive action; but for the  coercion, I would have chosen to surrender neither my life nor my wallet.

3. An employer fires a worker. Has he coerced the worker? Clearly not; he has  simply decided to terminate a relationship voluntarily entered into by both  parties, either because the worker was no longer needed or because the worker  was inadequate to the job. Socialists often call this coercion—or its cousin, “exploitation”—and yet if the worker quits his job for a better one, they would  never call it coercion or exploitation. There is an asymmetry in the socialist’s  position which is not often noticed. But the one is no more coercion than the  other.

4. The employer says, “If you don’t give me your sister in marriage, I’ll  fire you.” Here there is clearly a threat; is there coercion? There surely seems  to be coercion; one may hesitate in calling it so only because one is not sure  about the seriousness of the threat. In most cases the worker would just quit  and go somewhere else. Perhaps it was only an attempt at coercion?

Coercion can be a matter of degree. It depends on (a) the seriousness of the  threat to the person threatened, on (b) whether the threatener is able to go  through with the threat, and on (c) the likelihood of his doing so (most threats  are idle, like “I’ll kill you” uttered in a bar-room brawl). If someone says to  you “If you don’t do as I command, I’ll set fire to your house” you are  likely to take it as a serious threat, but one to which you may not give in if  your house is fully insured, or if your freedom is more valuable to you than the  house. If he says, “If you don’t do as I command, I’ll let the air out of your  tires,” you might not consider the threat worth responding to: rather than  capitulate, you might simply say “Go ahead and do it.” If he says “If you  don’t do as I command, I’ll plant a nuclear bomb in your house and destroy the  whole city,” the threat is a serious one indeed; but now it is quite probable  (varying of course with circumstances) that either he can’t go through with the  threat or he won’t. If he both can and probably will, this would indeed  constitute a strong case of coercion.

In law, coercion exerted upon you to do something usually counts as excusing  of what you have done: it was done “under duress,” and the responsibility for  the act shifts to the person who threatened you. But it is not always so: if  someone says he will kill you if you don’t kill Mr. X, and everything points to  his power and willingness to fulfill his threat, you are nevertheless likely to  be liable for murder. (If you could successfully plead duress, and the  threatener could repeat his threat, this time demanding that you kill Mr. Y and  Mr. Z, you could commit as many murders as the person demanded while getting off  scot-free. The law says you should risk being killed yourself rather than  fulfilling such threats.)

5. You stake a claim in the desert, build a house, and dig a well. Soon  thereafter another man settles on a nearby strip of desert and also builds a  house and digs a well. But soon he runs out of water. “Without water I can’t  live,” he says to you. “Won’t you give me some of your water, or sell it to me?” But you refuse, saying “My water is not for sale. I may run out of water myself  at any time. And even if I don’t, I want to be sure. I simply say, No Sale.” Although by your action you are depriving him of a resource without which he  cannot continue to live in the desert, you have not coerced him.[2]  You didn’t make him come there; you and he both took your chances with the  desert. Instead of saying that you coerced him, it would be preferable to say “The desert has beaten him.” Perhaps the humane act would have been to give him  some water (though this would only be a temporary expedient, and the same  problem would arise again the next day), but in any case you have not  coerced him. His freedom of action (freedom-to) has been restricted by your  action, for he can no longer live in his bit of desert; although he may curse  you as he leaves the desert, he cannot rightly say that you coerced him.

Neither did the physician use coercion in refusing to sell or give someone  else a life-saving medication that he has invented; the physician’s refusal  simply places the patient where he would have been anyway without the  physician’s invention. Neither has the man who declined to rescue a drowning  person coerced him; he may not have done his moral duty (depending on  circumstances such as: how good a swimmer is he? is the water dangerous? can he  rescue without great risk to himself?, and so forth), but, assuming that the  swimmer went voluntarily into the water, he was free-from all coercion both  before and after he decided to swim. Even while drowning, he was free in the  sense of free-from dictation by others—but not in the sense of being free-to  continue his life thereafter.

Freedom as Freedom-from Coercion

There are those who would restrict the meaning to freedom entirely to this  sense of absence of coercion. In his fine book, The Government Against the  Economy,[3]  George Reisman writes:

“In the nature of things it is impossible for me to square circles, walk  through walls, or be in two places at the same time. It is not possible for me,  in the actual circumstances of my life, to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry or  the Academy Award for Best Actor of the Year, or to enter the automobile or  steel business. Absolutely none of these facts constitutes a violation of my  freedom. In order for a violation of freedom to exist, it is not sufficient  merely that someone be unable to achieve what he desires. What is necessary is  that the thing stopping him be the government’s threat to use force against him,  specifically, its threat to initiate the use of force against him in  response to an action on his part that does not represent the use of force.

“If I ask a girl to marry me, and she says no, my freedom is not violated.  But suppose she says yes, and the government stops me from marrying her, say by  virtue of a law concerning marriages among people of different races, religions,  or blood types—then my freedom is violated.

“If I want to travel to California, but lack the fare and am unwilling to try  hitchhiking, my freedom of travel is in no way violated. But suppose I do have  the fare to go to California and want to pay it, but the government stops  me—say, with a wall around my city (as in East Berlin), a passport restriction,  or a price control on aviation fuel that stops the airlines from  flying—then my freedom of travel is violated.

“Suppose I want to print my views in the New York Times, but can  neither afford the advertising rates nor persuade the publisher to give me  space. My freedom of the press is not violated; I am not a victim of ‘censorship.’ But suppose I do have the money to pay the advertising rates or  could persuade the publisher to print my views, and the government disallows it—that would be a violation of the freedom of the press; that would be  censorship.

“If I cannot enter the automobile business because I am unable to raise the  money necessary to buy the equipment that would enable me to produce and sell  cars as cheaply as General Motors or Ford, my freedom of competition is not  violated. But suppose I can raise the money to enter the automobile  business, I am backed by a major steel company or a domestic auto firm, and the  government stops me; then, and only then, would my freedom of competition be  violated.”

On Reisman’s account, freedom is not violated unless coercion is employed.  Moreover, he narrows the scope of coercion by saying that only when done by government does it count as coercion. Though government may be the  principal source of coercion in our society, especially in matters of economic  freedom, it is surely not plausible to say that only government can  coerce. Highwaymen, bandits, robbers, rapists, and terrorists can certainly  coerce just as effectively, and inhibit one’s free-dom-from being forced to act  at the will of others.

The points that Reisman raises certainly need emphasis, but it is  questionable whether that emphasis should be provided by so drastically  restricting the scope of inhibitions of one’s freedom that only coercion, and  coercion by government at that, can violate one’s freedom. In ordinary  discourse, at any rate, the word “freedom” is used more widely than that. It is  also used in referring to (a) other kinds of freedom-from, as well as to (b)  freedom-to.

Though freedom from the arbitrary will of other persons is the principal way  one can have freedom-from, there are other things one can be free-from besides  the will of other human beings.

A person who was crippled with arthritis and now is cured is surely free from  the debilitating ailment that caused him so much distress. A writer who finds  himself unable to write anymore (has a “writer’s block”) and seeks help from a  psychotherapist, who makes it possible for him to overcome his problem and to  write again, has been freed from the “inner obstacle” (whatever it was) that  kept him from writing. A person who has powerful inner drives that threaten to  destroy him, such as a seemingly uncontrollable urge to kill or to set fires,  and who is cured through psychotherapy or behavior modification techniques from  having these urges, is now free from these impediments to his personal  developments. A man who, thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous, has gone for twenty  years without a drink is now free from the powerful and constant urge to drink.  He has been “set free,” not from coercion by other human beings, but from his  own destructive inner urges.

Surely these are plausible cases of being free-from, even though no coercion  by others is involved.


To many writers, and certainly to many philosophers, the freedoms-from we  have described are incidental: the main sense of freedom is freedom-to. When we  are free, we are free to do many things; the wider our range of choices,  the freer we are. If I am free to do A,B,C . . . S, I am freer than if my choice  is limited to just A and B.

In this sense, freedom is highly correlated with ability; the wider  the range of my choice, the greater my ability to do various things I want. If I  have a million dollars, I can spend the winter in the south of France if I want  to, or make numerous large investments, or buy another house—things I would not  be free to do if I had no wealth. Free-dom-to also gives a person greater power (not necessarily political power): it enables people to control  aspects of their environment, in cluding other people (if they wish to), as they  would not be able to do if they lacked the means to do it.

There are things, of course, we are not free to do even if we have wealth. We  cannot, for instance, fly through the air like birds. Is this a limitation on  our freedom? Not in the sense of freedom-from coercion; but it is something  that, owing to our physiognomy, we are not free to do. If your main dream  is to fly through the air like a bird, then you will be likely to count your  inability to do this as a limitation on your freedom. So is the fact that,  though you can bend your legs backward from the knee, you cannot bend them  forward.

Freedom to Vote

There is a special area of freedom-to that deserves separate mention: the  ability to vote, which is something one is free to do in democracies but not in  most totalitarian nations. This freedom is sometimes called “political freedom,” though somewhat misleadingly because that same term can also be used for other  things.[4]  Voting is, of course, one of the many things which in democratic nations one is  free to do. Unfortunately, however, it does not always achieve the freedom from  tyranny which is widely supposed to be its aim.[5]  People are often ignorant and shortsighted, and they often do vote themselves  into one or another kind of slavery, often through voting themselves large  benefits from the public trough and then suffering runaway inflation and  destruction of the currency as an unanticipated result of their actions. A wise  man is often outvoted by fools. The freedom to vote, then, while valuable, is  far from sufficient to guarantee any other freedom or even render its  fulfillment much more probable.

In the writings of the Founding Fathers, freedom always meant freedom from  tyranny and oppression. But in today’s political climate, the appeal of freedom  has largely shifted to freedom-to. If you take money away from the wealthy via  government transfer payments, you can do (are free to do) many things you could  not do otherwise; in this sense, the higher your welfare payments, the freer you  are. The Soviet Union, by training and arming in surgents in Central Africa,  used the lure of “freedom” as their appeal: if you take the farms from the  landowners, you will have them yourself, and then you will be free because you  will be rich. The natives would certainly not be free from political  control—quite the opposite—but they were promised freedom to do many things with  the expropriated money and property that they were unable to do before. As it  turned out, what they expropriated soon became (in most cases) useless to them  because they lacked the technology to maintain it and a political structure that  honored property rights. But the hope and the promise, at any rate, were of  increased freedom: the appeal was freedom-to, not freedom-from.

A Dangerous Development

There is no doubt that this shift in the meaning of “freedom” as the term is  used in the political arena is a dangerous development. “Once this  identification of freedom with power is admitted,” writes Hayek, “there is no  limit to the sophisms by which the attractions of the word ‘liberty’ can be used  to support measures which destroy individual liberty; no end to the tricks by  which people can be exhorted in the name of liberty to give up their liberty. It  has been with the help of this equivocation that the notion of collective power  over circumstances has been substituted for that of individual liberty, and that  in totalitarian states, liberty has been suppressed in the name of  liberty.”[6] It  is fatally easy to pass from freedom as the absence of coercion to freedom as  the ability to get what we want (via political coercion).

We cannot object that the word is not constantly used in both these ways, for  it is. What we can and should do is to emphasize that they mean two quite  different things. “Whether or not I am my own master and can follow my own  choices, and whether the possibilities from which I must choose are many or few,  are two entirely different questions. The courtier living in the lap of luxury  but at the beck and call of his prince may be much less free than a poor peasant  or artisan, less able to live his own life and to choose his own opportunities  for usefulness. Similarly, the general in charge of an army or the director of a  large construction project may wield enormous powers which in some respects may  be uncontrollable, and yet may well be less free, more liable to have to change  all his intentions and plans at a word from a superior, less able to change his  own life or to decide what to him is most important, than the poorest farmer or  shepherd.”[7]

Some people prefer to be free from tyranny and regulation even at the price  of being poor; they remain masters of their own lives. Others prefer to be free  to have many choices—or at least they accept the promise of having many  more choices in the future—while their lives and those of their fellow human  beings are ruled and regulated by a powerful central authority. A large part of  the history of the twentieth century could be written as the shift from the  first, and fundamental, meaning of”freedom” to the second. Both kinds of freedom  are doubtless desirable, but people have been all too willing to give up the  first kind of freedom for the second, only to find that the second was not after  all vouchsafed to them precisely because the first was sacrificed; their fate  had been placed in the hands of others.

Freedom and Other Values

It is most important to emphasize, however, that while freedom is an  enormously great value, it is not the sum of all values. A person can be free  and yet miserable. A person may be free from tyranny and oppression and  yet depressed, psychotic, or unhappy because of painful injuries. A person may  be free to do many things and yet unhappy doing any of them.

“Freedom may mean freedom to starve, to make costly mistakes, or to run  mortal risks. In the sense in which we use the term [freedom-from], the  penniless vagabond who lives precariously by constant improvisation is indeed  freer than the conscripted soldier with all his security and relative  comfort.”[8]

Nor is it even desirable that a person should be as free as possible in  either sense. (1) A person should be free from others controlling his  life, but not if he is a small child or an imbecile. In any case, there are many  desirable laws restricting people’s behavior, such as traffic laws, yet every  law is a restriction on one’s freedom from control by others. (2) A teenager who  has just in herited a million dollars is freer to do many things than his  peers are, but so much money so early in life may ruin him; it might be better  if he had not had this freedom to spend so early in life, before he could handle  it. Freedom is a heady wine, which needs to be tempered with re sponsibility,  restraint, and rational thought. Having a considerable degree of it is, at best,  a necessary condition for one’s happiness or well-being, never a sufficient condition.

Freedom and the Market

For the free market to operate, there must be freedom from the whims of  dictators and bureaucrats. The market can survive, though crippled, with some degree of interference, but when the interference becomes severe  enough to keep a man from being able to estimate probabilities into the future,  or when his taxes become so high that it is no longer worth his while to  continue in operation, the market is no longer able to function so as to produce  a vast quantity of goods and services at competitive prices. Free-dora-from is  indispensable to the market, and is indeed its chief condition.

Freedom-to is a highly beneficial consequence of the unimpeded  operation of the market. When entrepreneurs are free from economic controls  imposed on their activities by others, they will produce a proliferation of  goods which the public is then free to consume. This freedom-to on the part of  the public is the direct result of freedom from con-trois which makes the market  able to function.

But this is a lesson which, unfortunately, most of the buying public has yet  to learn. They want a large diversity of goods at competitive prices, but they  are not averse to shackling the producer of these goods so as to make him less  able to produce them. But in the economicrealm you cannot have the one free-dora  without the other: freedom-to (for the buyer) and freedom-from (for the  producer) are inextricably linked. When the one is lost, so, in a short space of  time, is the other. []

1.   Friedrich A. Hayek, The  Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), p. 12.

2.   Hayek writes, “True coercion occurs  when armed bands of conquerors make the subject people toil for them, when  organized gangsters extort a levy for ‘protection,’ when the knower of an evil  secret blackmails his victim, and, of course, when the state threatens to  inflict punishment and to employ physical force to make us obey its commands.  There are many degrees of coercion, from the extreme case of the dominance of  the master over the slave or the tyrant over the subject, where the unlimited  power of punishment exacts complete submission to the will of the master, to the  instance of the single threat of inflicting an evil to which the threatened  would prefer almost anything else.” (Hayek, op. cit., pp. 137-8.) Yet he  also holds—inconsistently, in my view—that the refusal of the desert-settler to  give or sell water to his neighbor is an example of coercion.

3.   George Reisman, The Government  versus the Economy (Ottawa, Illinois: Caroline House, 1980) pp. 97-98.

4.   For example, the phrase “political  freedom” is sometimes applied to a nation when it is not occupied by the armies  of other nations. In this sense, Nazi Germany was a free nation, and so  are numerous African and Latin American dictatorships.

5.   See John Hospers, “Freedom and  Democracy,” The Freeman, June 1984.

6.   Hayek, op. cit., p. 16.

7.   Hayek, op. cit., p. 17.

8.   Hayek, op. cit., p.  18.