The central idea of libertarianism is that people should be permitted to run their own lives as they wish. We totally reject the idea that people must be forcibly protected from themselves. A libertarian society would have no laws against drugs, gambling, pornography — and no compulsory seat belts in cars. We also reject the idea that people have an enforceable claim on others, for anything more than being left alone. A libertarian society would have no welfare, no Social Security system. People who wished to aid others would do so voluntarily through private charity, instead of using money collected by force from the taxpayers. People who wished to provide for their old age would do so through private insurance.
People who wish to live in a ‘virtuous’ society, surrounded by others who share their ideas of virtue, would be free to set up their own communities and to contract with each other so as to prevent the ‘sinful’ from buying or renting within them. Those who wished to live communally could set up their own communes. But nobody would have a right to force his way of life upon his neighbor.
So far, many who do not call themselves libertarians would agree. The difficulty comes in defining what it means to be ‘left alone’. We live in a complicated and interdependent society; each of us is constantly affected by events thousands of miles away, occurring to people he has never heard of. How, in such a society, can we meaningfully talk about each person being free to go his own way?
The answer to this question lies in the concept of property rights. If we consider that each person owns his own body and can acquire ownership of other things by creating them, or by having ownership transferred to him by another owner, it becomes at least formally possible to define ‘being left alone’ and its opposite, ‘being coerced’. Someone who forcibly prevents me from using my property as I want, when I am not using it to violate his right to use his property, is coercing me. A man who prevents me from taking heroin coerces me; a man who prevents me from shooting him does not.
This leaves open the question of how one acquires ownership of things that are not created or that are not entirely created, such as land and mineral resources. There is disagreement among libertarians on this question. Fortunately, the answer has little effect on the character of a libertarian society, at least in this country. Only about 3 percent of all income in America is rental income. Adding the rental value of owner-occupied housing would bring this figure up to about 8 percent. Property tax—rental income collected by government—is about another 5 percent. So the total rental value of all property, land and buildings, adds up to about 13 percent of all income. Most of that is rent on the value of buildings, which are created by human effort, and thus poses no problem in the definition of property rights; the total rent on all land, which does pose such a problem, is thus only a tiny fraction of total income. The total raw material value of all minerals consumed, the other major ‘unproduced’ resource, is about another 3 percent. There again, much of that value is the result of human effort, of digging the ore out of the ground. Only the value of the raw resources in situ may reasonably be regarded as unproduced. So resources whose existence owes nothing to human action bring to their owners, at the most, perhaps one-twentieth of the national income. The vast majority of income is the result of human actions. It is created by identifiable groups of people, working together under agreements that specify how their joint product is to be divided.
The concept of property allows at least a formal definition of ‘letting alone’ and ‘coercing’. That this definition corresponds to what people usually mean by those words—that a libertarian society would be free—is by no means obvious. It is here that libertarians part company with our friends on the left, who agree that everyone should be free to do as he wishes, but argue that a hungry man is not free and that his right to freedom therefore implies an obligation to provide food for him, whether one likes it or not.