By Luke Henderson
Continuing my series of articles meant to address the common criticisms of libertarianism, this week we will discuss the argument that a libertarian societal would be a return to a feudal society.
To read my first article on libertarians and compassion for the poor, click here.
I originally stumbled upon this point of view when I was following the Facebook group Americans Against the Libertarian Party (warning to anyone who dares to tread these waters). Feudalism was something that I had never heard of and it took some digging to figure out what these angry Facebookers were talking about.
Feudalism was a political system used in the Middle Ages where lords would grant land and protections to vassals (the person with the obligation to the lord) in exchange for services such as being a part of the lord’s military or anything else the lord would require. Karl Marx later appropriated the term and defined it as the beginning of the class society where the ruling class controlled the land and exploited the peasants through serfdom (bondage where the peasants were required to work for the lord).
This argument stems from an article by the Roosevelt Institute. The author uses a quote from Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State and Utopia” about people being able to sells themselves into slavery under a libertarian-minded society and claims “If the recession were so bad that millions of people started selling themselves into slavery, or entering contracts that required lifelong feudal oaths to employers and foregoing basic rights, in order to survive, this would raise no important liberty questions for the libertarian minimal state”.
Another source of those who claim comes from libertarian writers and writers from the Austrian School of economics using feudalism as an example of a society based upon voluntary interactions. Ryan McMaken, editor of the Mises Wire, writes “The Feudal system was similar in that power was decentralized, and conflicts were resolved through complex systems of contracts and arbitration. Warfare was expensive and depended on valuable and highly-specialized knights whose terms of service were restricted by private agreements.”
Nozick and McMaken both are attempting to argue on the importance of freedom of association and coming to agreements with people to meet our ends. I believe the overall spirit of feudalism is the aspect that they were referring towards when arguing for governmental structures based upon mutual exchanges and not a return to an aristocratic and monarchist society.
Firstly, feudalism typically involved the lord claiming they owned the land without any basis of purchase or first settlement. Usually, it was because these wealthy individuals had the larger army to enforce their “ownership” which is a clear violation of the Non-Aggression Principle, a staple of libertarian philosophy. The only difference between our current government and this model is that today we do receive services that we may not necessarily want. It’s the difference between straight robbery and coercion.
Secondly, any form of slavery would not be allowed in a libertarian society. Slavery robs a person of their bodily autonomy and ownership of self. One could “sell” themselves into slavery, but the only way to truly enforce it would be through threats, violence, and coercion; all things that are considered aggressions. Slavery also violates the libertarian value of freedom of association so any contractual slavery would be null and void.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau spoke of voluntary slavery in “The Social Contract” and stated, “To say that a man gives himself gratuitously, is to say what is absurd and inconceivable; such an act is null and illegitimate, from the mere fact that he who does it is out of his mind”. Rousseau argues that a man who sells himself cannot guarantee that the terms of his contract be met since the other party owns everything that is him and that he creates.
The author states “For what right can my slave have against me, when all that he has belongs to me, and, his right being mine, this right of mine against myself is a phrase devoid of meaning?” Essentially, a person cannot sell themselves into slavery because it robs them of liberty and the exchange is not a mutually beneficial one.
Murray Rothbard confirms this view in “Ethics of Liberty” when he claims “A man can alienate his labor service, but he cannot sell the capitalized future value of that service. In short, he cannot, in nature, sell himself into slavery and have this sale enforced—for this would mean that his future will over his own person was being surrendered in advance.”
Simply put, people are not property, but individuals and can never be property without having their rights and liberty stripped from them.
So, calling a libertarian society a return to a feudal one is not a valid comparison. The authoritarian nature of land claiming and the serfdom that emerges from this system goes against so many tenets of libertarians and non-aggression, that a free market, liberty minded society would never allow this to occur.