Libertarianism, Adam Smith, and property relations
If you want to understand the foundation of libertarianism, there is no better place to look than Adam Smith’s view of property relations.Laced throughout Smith’s book, The Wealth of Nations, one finds the Enlightenment doctrine of the four stages of history: the evolution from a hunter society through herding and agriculture to a commercial society. These stages were also about the development of property and the development of government. At the commercial stage, ownership of property had become the basis of free enterprise and government’s role was to protect property.
I think that libertarianism fits squarely on this legacy of property relations. Freedom is the right to do what I want with what I have, with my property. What is especially irritating to libertarians is for the government to take from the “haves” and give it to the “have-nots.” What is equally irritating to non-libertarians is the practice of treating the people and the planet as property, and of ignoring how everyone is interrelated and interconnected in social and economic systems.
In contrast to the Anglo-American property-based tradition, the philosophers of continental Europe based human freedom on the moral will and human dignity. This has given them a framework for seeing people related to one another as a moral community. The Anglo-American tradition of property relations does not have the same resources. In fact, if we want to create a political economy that would move us toward justice and sustainability, we will need to move beyond Smithian economics and libertarianism. We will need to create a global civil society that includes all as members, instead of a property-based society that separates us into the haves and the have-nots.