A State of Nature

Let us consider a somewhat idealized state of nature, one that may have never existed except perhaps on deserted islands, but nonetheless a model that gives us a standard of “perfection” to act as a yardstick for societies not in such a state.

Suppose we have very few people scattered about a large amount of nature, such that the population is so sparse that any person or voluntary association of people can “get away from it all” in whatever environment they so choose. What rights would these individuals (or small voluntary groups) have, which frequently get lost in civilization? Imagine yourself and perhaps family and/or a few friends isolated in your favorite corner of Eden with no implements of modern civilization. What rights would you have?

For starters, you wouldn’t have to pay taxes. No people means no government. It also means no slavers, vandals, or thieves to worry about. (If you are imagining a group, this right and the following rights apply to your group; if you have the wrong friends, there may be stealing within your group. “You” refers to your group if you are imagining a group.) All the products of your labor are yours. You don’t have to help anyone unless you want to. All this sounds very Reaganesque, but we are not yet done.

There are also no guarantees of safety! There are dangerous animals about. The water supply may have parasites or dangerous bacteria. Many bugs consider you dinner. And you do not have the right to the products of anyone else’s labor: no welfare, free health care, public schools or the like. Hmmm, we are getting to the right of Reagan now!

But, there are also no drug laws! You can take whatever herbs you can find or grow -- sounds rather libertarian. And there are no restrictions on the sexual preferences of your group, and even clothing is optional, weather permitting.

If we were to stop with our description here, we could have the basis for a libertarian society by simply preserving the rights you would have in this idealized state of nature. The rule would be: you can do anything you want as long as it doesn’t violate someone else’s natural rights. No one can take what you have built, eat what you have gathered, force you to work for them, or force you to obey someone else’s code of morality.

When we let some reality seep in and we have to deal with someone who violated someone else’s natural rights, we have some tougher questions to answer: How much force is justified in self defense? How much is justified in crime prevention? What is the most moral way to pay for protection from those who would violate these rights? Many books have been written on such questions, but instead of dwelling on them, I want to move on to the other natural rights and how many in the natural rights/libertarian tradition have had difficulty dealing with them.