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Quotidian Libertarianism

The comment of one “JA” on this EconLog post by Bryan Caplan got me thinking.  Specifically, JA writes, at the start of his or her comment:

I’ve heard that objection to libertarianism: how come there is no present day libertarian country?

This objection is indeed one that is often made.  But for a variety of reasons, it’s weak.  One reason: a society without the murder of innocent people is clearly desirable.  Yet the fact that no such society has ever existed does not mean that the goal is unworthy.

But here’s another reason why this objection is weak: its premise is questionable.  It’s true that nearly all societies that we identify by nation- (or city-) state names have now, and have had in the past, governments or rulers that almost always intruded in non-libertarian ways into people’s lives.  “The United States of America” and “Great Britain” and “Russia” and “Venice” and “Byzantium” and “Egypt” (and on and on and on with the names of current and past sovereignties) were never libertarian societies.  (Some of these societies, of course, are and were closer to the libertarian ideal than others.  The less murder a society has, the better it is even though it might remain far from achieving the ideal of having no murder at all.)

But in modern bourgeois societies, libertarianism is the norm for most sub-national social arrangements among strangers.  Visit an American supermarket.  Look around.  You’ll see property rights being respected.  You’ll see contracts being made, followed, and enforced.  You’ll see voluntary exchanges galore.  You’ll find no one taking it upon himself or herself (or colluding with other shoppers or cashiers) to prohibit shopper Suzy from buying as many cans of soda as she wishes, or to demand that shopper Sam buy packages of condoms that he would prefer not to buy.  You’ll find no one – again, either acting alone or in concert with others – ‘redistributing’ wealth from the purse of shopper Sally to the wallet of shopper Steve.  You’ll see no one conscripting some young shoppers into a military battalion to be unleashed on a rival supermarket.  You’ll find people minding their own business and, while being civil and polite to others, never officiously attempting to boss each other around.  (I say “officiously” because of course it’s true that store managers do “boss” store employees, but only according to the terms of the employment contracts.)  You’ll see people spontaneously creating and following law (such as, for example, the law of not leaving your shopping cart in a position to block an aisle).

Libertarianism is the default arrangement among most groups of strangers in modern bourgeois societies.