Yesterday, Anthony and I debated Libertarians Jon and Will Adams of the Young Americans for Freedom. We recorded the first hour or so of the debate, and if all goes well, it will soon appear on YouTube; when it does, I'll post the link. After a little reflection, I want to discuss some of my thoughts about Libertarianism. My reactions are to the brand of Libertarianism described by Jon and Will; if you have a different view of Libertarianism, I'll be happy to discuss that too.
As I understand their position, Libertarianism fundamentally consists of the objective moral value that the initiation of coercion is absolutely wrong, and that interference with one's property, broadly defined, always consists of the initiation of coercion. This foundation is deeply problematic on a number of levels.
The initiation of coercion with regard to property is much less problematic if ownership were defined exclusively by physical possession and use. When coupled with absentee, abstract ownership (property that one person owns, in some sense, even though someone else occupies or uses it), however, the initiation of coercion seems to become self-defeating.
Whether or not we accept objectively true moral values, to be coherent, moral objectivism must entail that moral judgments should attach consistently to objectively determinable physical circumstances. In other words, if two events are objectively identical in morally relevant ways, we should have the same moral judgment regarding both circumstances. But the plain English meaning of "initiation of coercion", i.e. the first use of physical force, does not distinguish between two events that have the same objective physical circumstances. Specifically, consider the case of two people, Alice and Bob, both peacefully occupying their houses. Neither has given any offense to their neighbors; there is no relevant physical difference between their respective occupancies. One day, a group of armed people come to both of their houses, and, at gunpoint, evict them. Objectively, since the armed people are the first to use physical force, they are initiating coercion. Physically, objectively (in the sense of disregarding any individuals' subjective states), the situations are completely identical. Alice's eviction is illegitimate because she "owns" her house; Bob's eviction, however, is legitimate because someone else, Carl, "owns" his house, and Carl wishes to reclaim his property. There is no objective difference between the two situations; the only morally relevant difference is subjective: socially constructed ownership. Therefore, we cannot claim that the initiation of coercion is an objective moral standard, since purely subjective states are morally relevant.
The point is not to say that only objective physical states in some sense ought to be morally relevant; the point, rather, is that the claim of objectivity is flatly contradicted if subjective states are relevant to forming our moral judgment.
There are two ways to try to get out of this dilemma, but both fail. The first is to simply say that because we believe Bob's eviction is legitimate, it is not the initiation of coercion. But that would be a useless tautology: to be useful, the objective determination of initiation of coercion needs to be independent of our naive or intuitive evaluations of legitimacy; we must be able to appeal to the objective facts to argue against another's intuition. Another way is to argue that Bob's eviction is not the initiation of coercion, because he had already agreed to vacate at Carl's arbitrary whim. But this argument fails because an agreement is not an objective fact; it is a subjective fact, a fact about the minds of Bob and Carl (and perhaps their community). Again, there is nothing wrong per se with attaching legitimacy to subjective facts, but subjective facts are not objective facts.
I have more thoughts on the subject. I'm going to talk about Libertarianism and oligarchy, as well as Libertarianism without absentee, abstract ownership.