In the wonderful world of political debate, ideas and concepts are often jumbled together, confused, and misused.
An example of this is when non-consensual authority, consensual authority, and hierarchy are intermixed in conversations concerning libertarianism.
Let’s go through each of them one at a time.
Authority is to have power over something. Legitimate authority is when the power is consensual and/or directly tied to a certain responsibility. A captain is responsible for the ship, therefore he has appropriate authority over the crew, who are not in command and not held accountable for his responsibilities.
Non-consensual authority is when power is wielded over an individual against their will. The Non-Aggression Principle prohibits this, and because government by definition requires it, albeit often times in an indirect manner, libertarianism is inherently opposed in principle to the idea of the state.
Libertarianism is Not Anti-Authority
Libertarianism, however, is not anti-authority. People are innately in authority over themselves because they are responsible for themselves. It is perfectly acceptable within libertarian philosophy for one person to exercise authority over other people, provided that A) the authority was delegated voluntarily and B) the person under said authority can withdraw their consent if they wish to reassume responsibility and this was agreed upon beforehand.
Telling libertarians they “have a problem with authority” is an interesting remark, because when it comes to rebellion it’s all a matter of perspective. Tyrants and dictators are in a sense rebels because they are resisting the Natural Law, which holds that people have property in themselves; a fundamental aspect of libertarianism is the idea of self-ownership.
Who is rebelling against who depends on where you believe ultimate authority is to be located; it is a useful way to tell a person’s political views without asking directly. Proponents of non-consensual authority, especially when the individual in authority wields that power in a way the person prefers, fall on both sides of the traditional Right-Left political spectrum.
Hierarchy and Libertarianism
Hierarchy is another concept whose true purpose and function gets confused when discussing libertarian philosophy. Hierarchy concerns the manner in which authority is organized within an institution.
In fact, I would venture to say that hierarchy is a natural state for various reasons. One of them is practical. We see this in the every day world. People do not have the capacity to perform certain tasks, so they delegate the authority to someone else. In organizations, hierarchy is necessary for economic reasons; it makes little sense to have everyone perform small amounts of the same duties. The division of labor as articulated by Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations shows why this hierarchy leads to prosperity. The only way to divide labor is to divide responsibility, and authority has to be provided in order to carry out one’s role.
Where the confusion reigns is when people consider it inextricably linked to non-consensual systems such as the Indian Caste or Jim Crow segregation, which established state-enforced hierarchies based on class and race.
The Limitations of a Stateless Society
I do have to point out, however, that libertarianism does not forbid discrimination when it is limited to one’s own property. People can choose to associate or not associate with others. They may also favor organizations, cultures, or societies that contains hierarchies benefiting them.
In other words, even in a stateless society, it would be possible for voluntary organizations to exist that employed a hierarchical system that benefited some at the expense of others. As long as those who participate in it do so voluntarily and can withdraw their support voluntarily, there is no violation of the NAP. To some, this seems contradictory, but again this is because separate ideas such as equality and freedom are used interchangeably.
I point this out to counter those who claim that libertarians believe if we established a stateless society it would solve all the world’s problems, i.e. create a utopia. Anyone who has read human history and understands basic human nature would realize such a scenario is obviously not possible, and one would be hard pressed to find a significant libertarian writer who would make such a claim.
Like so many arguments against libertarianism, it avoids the issue being addressed by reframing the discussion.
Unlike other philosophies, libertarianism does not handle societal, moral, or religious issues, unless they are linked to the state.
Hierarchy is an example of such.