A man is no freer because his own countrymen oppress him.

Individual Liberty and the Incoherence of National Self-Rule
Grant Babcock
Philosophy & Policy Editor

Grant Babcock is the Philosophy and Policy Editor of Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org and a scholar of political philosophy. He is especially interested in nonviolent action, epistemology of the social sciences, social contract theories and criticisms thereof, and finding libertarian‐​compatible responses to cultural problems.

When someone says a place like Canada or Germany is “a free country,” they typically mean that the country has political institutions that respect and protect individual rights. When someone says “Free Tibet!” they typically mean that Tibet should be governed by Tibetans, independent from the authority of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. These two distinct usages of the word “free” have a complicated relationship–and when they’re mishandled, confusion and error result.

What Enlightenment Liberals Meant by “Free”

The liberals of the Enlightenment often supported both the individual‐​rights sort of freedom and the self‐​rule sort of freedom, especially democratic self‐​rule.

In the second Treatise, John Locke writes:

The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to have only the law of nature for his rule. The liberty of man, in society, is to be under no other legislative power, but that established, by consent, in the commonwealth; nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact, according to the trust put in it.

Chap. IV. §22

Locke’s “natural liberty of man” is the set of pre‐​political rights we all have, the individual‐​rights sort of freedom. His “liberty of man[] in society” includes the self‐​rule sort of freedom, plus some stipulations about what sort of powers a legislature can be delegated by the people.

In Locke’s framework, when governments—directed at the protection of individual rights—are formed by a social contract, a body politic is also created, with a legitimate interest in preserving self‐​rule. In the following passage, Locke explains why the social contract that creates a government is voided when that government transfers power to a foreign sovereign:

[F]or the end why people entered into society being to be preserved one intire, free, independent society, to be governed by its own laws; this is lost, whenever they are given up into the power of another.

Ch. XIX. §217

Locke thinks that because foreign powers are not party to a given country’s social contract, they have no rightful authority in that country, and so any attempt by them to do the things a legitimate government could do represents an infringement on people’s freedom, specifically their freedom from the authority of any government “but that established, by consent, in the commonwealth.”

Closely connected with the idea of self‐​rule is the idea of popular sovereignty, which was advanced by Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers, as an alternative to the illegitimate sovereignty claims of the absolute monarchs. The state, whatever its specific form, had to derive its authority from a popular mandate. While a monarch might claim to represent the will of the people—Hobbes justified a type of monarchy more or less on those terms—popular sovereignty is much more conducive to justifying a democratic republic.

Spooner and the Anarchist Turn

The liberal tradition, though, didn’t stop with Locke. Almost 200 years later, Lysander Spooner drew a sharp distinction between ruler and ruled, and rather than seeing democracy as dissolving that distinction, he saw the ballot box as protecting would‐​be rulers from moral and legal responsibility for their actions.

And this is avowedly the only reason for the ballot: for a secret government; a government by secret bands of robbers and murderers. And we are insane enough to call this liberty! To be a member of this secret band of robbers and murderers is esteemed a privilege and an honor! Without this privilege, a man is considered a slave; but with it a free man! With it he is considered a free man, because he has the same power to secretly (by secret ballot) procure the robbery, enslavement, and murder of another man, that that other man has to procure his robbery, enslavement, and murder. And this they call equal rights!

If any number of men, many or few, claim the right to govern the people of this country, let them make and sign an open compact with each other to do so. Let them thus make themselves individually known to those whom they propose to govern. And let them thus openly take the legitimate responsibility of their acts.

No Treason No. VI §9

While Locke had attacked the sovereignty claims of the absolute monarchs, Spooner called into question the moral legitimacy of popular sovereignty, too. Spooner’s rejection of the idea that democracy means “we” govern “ourselves” was carried forward and built upon by subsequent thinkers in the libertarian tradition.

Rothbard and the Myth of Government as “Us”

About 100 years after Spooner wrote the passage above, Murray Rothbard discussed how the myth that the government is “us” works to the state’s advantage.

[E]ach State has been particularly successful over the centuries in instilling fear among its subjects of other State rulers. With the land area of the globe now parceled out among particular States, one of the basic doctrines and tactics of the rules of each State has been to identify itself with the territory it governs. Since most men tend to love their homeland, the identification of that land and its population with the State is a means of making natural patriotism work to the State’s advantage. If, then, “Ruritania” is attacked by “Walldavia,” the first task of the Ruritanian State and its intellectuals is to convince the people of Ruritania that the attack is really upon them, and not simply upon their ruling class. In this way, a war between rulers is converted into a war between peoples, with each people rushing to the defense of their rules in the mistaken belief that the rulers are busily defending them.

For a New Liberty, p. 71

One profitable way to read Spooner and Rothbard is that they are demonstrating how Locke’s “natural liberty of man” is actually in tension with his “liberty of man[] in society,” because states are institutions that systematically violate the rights people enjoy under the “law of nature,” and that given this tension, we ought to prefer the “natural liberty of man.” Rothbard writes:

In the phrase “we are the government,” the useful collective term “we” has enabled an ideological camouflage to be thrown over the naked exploitative reality of political life. … The government does not in any accurate sense “represent” the majority of the people, but even if it did, even if 90 percent of the people decided to murder or enslave the other 10 percent, this would still be murder and slavery, and would not be voluntary suicide or enslavement on the part of the oppressed minority. Crime is crime, aggression against rights is aggression, no matter how many citizens agree to the oppression. There is nothing sacrosanct about the majority; the lynch mob, too, is the majority in its own domain.

For a New Liberty, p. 60

If the government is a separate entity from the governed, with distinct interests and preferences not shared with those it governs, this raises the question of whether and how much libertarians should care whether a given country’s ruling class is domestic or foreign. A country with a domestic ruling class does not “rule itself” any more than a does a country with a foreign ruling class; in both cases, one group of people rules another. Is there reason for a libertarian to prefer one arrangement to the other? Rothbard’s views on this question are somewhat muddled. On one hand, he says any state’s claim to sovereignty is as illegitimate as every other state’s. Discussing a war between the imaginary countries Belgravia and Graustark, Rothbard writes:

But “aggression” only makes sense on the individual Smith‐​Jones level, as does the very term “police action.” These terms make no sense whatever on an inter‐​State level. … When Smith beats up Jones or steals his property we can identify Smith as an aggressor up on the personal or property right of his victim. But when the Graustarkian State invades the territory of the Belgravian State, it is impermissible to refer to “aggression” in an analogous way. For the libertarian, no government has a just claim to any property or “sovereignty” right in a given territorial area. … No State has any legitimate property; all of its territory is the result of some kind of aggression and violent conquest. Hence the Graustarkian State’s invasion is necessarily a battle between two sets of thieves and aggressors: the only problem is that innocent civilians on both sides are being trampled upon.

For a New Liberty, p. 335

On the other hand, when he discusses foreign policy, Rothbard does differentiate between a foreign and a domestic tyrant.

In relations between States, then, the libertarian goal is to keep each of these States from extending their violence to other countries, so that each State’s tyranny is at least confined to its own bailiwick. For the libertarian is interested in reducing as much as possible the area of State aggression against all private individuals. The only way to do this, in international affairs, is for the people of each country to pressure their own State to confine its activities to the area it monopolizes and not to attack other States or aggress against their subjects. In short, the objective of the libertarian is to confine any existing State to as small a degree of invasion of person and property as possible. And this means the total avoidance of war.

For a New Liberty, pp. 331–2

Rothbard’s case that “the only way” to accomplish libertarian ends in international affairs is “for the people of every country to pressure their own [s]tate to confine its activities to the area it monopolizes” is presented here as though it were a categorical claim admitting no exception. That’s odd, since the argument seems to rest on contingent empirical facts about how states have behaved historically when “extending their violence to other countries.” It is possible to imagine a humanitarian military intervention (or a war born of less noble motives) that accomplishes its aims swiftly with minimal loss of life and destruction of property. Things never seem to work out that way—instead, time after time, wars produce widespread death and destruction. The historical record is clear that the costs of war almost never outweigh the benefits, which should make libertarians loathe to endorse war as a way to achieve libertarian ends. It may be that the weight of evidence is so overwhelming as to be insurmountable in practice, but that determination still has to be made case‐​by‐​case. To justify a categorical claim would require an argument to the effect that whether it is permissible for A to do anything about B violating C’s rights depends on the relative geographical locations of A, B, and C, and whether the parties fall on this side or the other of lines imagined into being by states—i.e., on Rothbard’s terms, by a bunch of criminal gangs.

The Incoherence of Self‐​Determination

When people attempt to attach moral significance to being on one side of a border or another, it is most commonly on the basis of a people’s right to self-determination—that is, a people’s freedom in the “Free Tibet!” sense. Because the Graustarkian State represents the people of Graustark, it is argued that it is not for the state of Belgravia, representing the people of Belgravia and not Graustark, to extend its authority into Graustarkian territory.

But libertarians like Rothbard have already rejected the ideas that a democratic government in any way “represents” the people it rules and that democratic processes can legitimize otherwise illegitimate rights violations. It is absurd to suppose that that A’s violating B’s rights is of no moral concern if C, D, E, etc. voted for it. If there are such things as pre‐​political rights at all, they cannot be subject to abridgement, suspension, or outright violation on the mere basis of some opinion poll. Representative democracy, then, cannot imbue borders with any moral significance.

One upshot of all this is that the distinction between a people resisting a foreign government, which does not represent that people, and a “domestic” government, which also does not represent them, collapses. Indeed, it is normally the case that the “domestic” state was, at some point in history, a foreign one; states have their origin in a conquering group setting itself up as an aristocracy and exploiting the conquered group.

Another upshot is that not much is left of Locke’s “liberty of man[] in society” for a consistent libertarian to defend for its own sake. The (democratic) self‐​rule sort of freedom is valuable–only instrumentally–to the extent that it promotes the individual‐​rights sort of freedom.

A libertarian might note, correctly, that democratic ideology underpins state power, and that therefore democracy itself must ultimately be considered another mode of state oppression–but it would be incorrect to conclude from that observation that any steps taken against democracy are of necessity steps taken toward liberty.

Even if Spooner is correct that by the act of voting a person becomes party to the state’s crimes—joining the “secret band of robbers and murderers”—and even if it’s true, as some anarchist libertarians have argued, that voting constitutes an act of aggression—libertarians would do well to keep in mind that denying the members of a population voting rights, like denying them the right to keep and bear arms, is often prelude to the oppression or even extermination of the disenfranchised population. Rather than applauding a partial restriction of the franchise as a half‐​measure in the morally right direction of abolishing “democratic” rights violations, a libertarian should, keeping history in mind, see it as a precursor of anti‐​democratic rights violations. When state actors restrict the franchise, they are assuredly not doing so with an eye towards abolishing the state.

To determine whether an expansion or contraction of national self‐​rule is likely to have a positive or negative impact on individual rights requires a deep understanding of the institutional and historical context. In Hong Kong today, for example, the preservation of the individual‐​rights sort of freedom depends very much on Hong Kongers’ ability to defend self‐​rule, even if that self‐​rule only amounts to control by a ruling class of Hong Kongers rather than control by the Chinese Communist Party. Ironically, the individual‐​rights sort of freedom Hong Kongers value so highly is inextricably entangled with the city’s past as a British colony. In Hungary, democratic self‐​rule has endangered individual liberty: the Hungarian people empowered Viktor Orbán and the “national conservative” Fidesz party. Once in control, Orbán and Fidesz amended the Hungarian constitution to consolidate power—up to the point of rule‐​by‐​decree—and advance their illiberal policy aims. In Hong Kong and Hungary, as in so many other places, the relationship between self‐​rule and individual rights is nuanced and multi‐​faceted. To begin to get a handle on things though, we must understand the distinction, and not blithely elide it with the ambiguous word “freedom.”