Libertarian policies by measurement ommission

Simon, you are using the words ” measurement omission” in a headline. You had better explain. Ayn Rand made several important philosophical contributions. One of those was the epistemological idea that “concepts”, primary ones at least, are identical with sets of real things. She called them “existents” (things that exist) or “referents” (things referred to by the concept). The important point is that these individual things were actual and concrete, they were detectable by the senses. This is crucially important as it makes a connection between the conceptual world and the experienced world that mainstream philosophy does not accept. Since mainstream philosophy came up with socialism, taxation and similarly daft ideas the eventual consequences are potentially profound. But… I digress.

Measurement omission

Rand believed that a healthy mind identifies primary concepts by grouping items together into similar groups. Five different apples, for example, are grouped together by being small, red, round, and glossy to touch, but I have not told you that each of the apples is 4cm, 5cm, 6cm, 5.5cm and 5.2cm in diameter, I omitted that detail. Conceptually, my apples are all red, but apples in general discourse are not all red, it is omitted from the accepted definition. More abstract concepts such as mathematical calculations, boil down to perceptual primitives such as counting things (which things? Any things, they are omitted from the concept of counting). The central theme of her theory of concepts is that good useful valid concepts are connected, directly or indirectly, to these primary concepts that are validated by the senses. Note that the example concept “my apples” is different from “apples” generally, and that I can think upon my apples differently according to my purpose, so long as the link to sensory data is upheld. I may set out to sell the apples on the market and think of them as “stock”. Later in the day I may come to think of them as “lunch” and may lose some apples. I may buy an additional stock of green apples, and my concept of “my apples” would then need updating to omit the measurement “red”, which no longer matches my senses. If I started selling clothes, I may discontinue using this concept. We could say that “my apples” is a bit of a half-arsed concept that is not generally applicable, and we might seek a better one. Based on experience of more than one day on the market , I might mentally separate stock and apples and reject the ad hoc concepts I had formed earlier as experience shows them to be inadequate tools.

Rand’s formulation of concepts is resistant to honest intellectual error. For example, learning something works differently than expected does not automatically falsify the concept, but rather adds to what you know about all the referents of the concept. This makes the job of a philosophical skeptic rather difficult as it is harder to deduce that generalisations are suspect and unsafe, or in other words that induction is suspect and unsafe. In Rand’s view, therefore, both deduction and induction are valid. As such, she establishes the process for building an objective system of morality and virtues that is intellectually justified.

Defining Libertarianism

Many Randian’s do not get on with libertarians, and one of the reasons they give is that libertarianism is an “empty concept” (Brook) or “floating abstraction” (Hsieh), meaning it is not derived from primary concepts or inductive justification. I disagree, after a fashion, because I believe that within the mess of conflicting semantics there is an uncontroversial core concept of libertarianism that is valid according to Objectivist epistemology. Definitions of libertarianism  do differ wildly, but the most widely accepted definition is the application of the non-aggression principle to political science, as such, a policy will not be libertarian if it involves aggression.

What is aggressive? Again, opinions vary. Some libertarians believe that demeaning statements that offend a person are aggressive, but the things considered to be force by most libertarians are:

  • Violence.
  • Kidnap / Detention.
  • Fraud.
  • Threats of violence and detention.

The above identification was not based directly on senses but was essentially democratic. Democracy is not a valid path to the formation and justification of a concept. What democracy can tell us though is what concepts are held has true and by whom, and what words they attach to those concepts. We have not, therefore, drawn out a justification of libertarianism, but an identification of the abstract entity which is the concept libertarians call “libertarianism”. In fact, what we have is a definition:

Libertarianism (n.) Those political policies whose practice does not, or would not, rely in whole or in part on the initiation of violence (including detention), fraud, or the threat of violence.

Note that the subject of the policy it’s purpose etc, is omitted, but the species (political policy) and differentia (relating to violence) are present. We are going in the direction of a solid objectivist concept.

Validating Libertarianism

Since it suits our purposes we work backwards and ask “what are the referents of this concept and what measurements are we focused on when we reason about it?”.  Political policies are not immediately available to the senses, so let’s take an interesting and controversial example and show how this concept is related to sense-data. The “land value tax” concept is clearly a derived concept. It is related to primary concepts that are available to the senses, they are as follows:

Tax: money taken under duress by a legal authority. People will have experienced being taxed, at a minimum, because they are unable to access and count the full amount of their earnings, or add up their spending meet the total earned. Tax is the explanation for not holding earned money.

Few people will directly experience prison, especially on tax matters, but the concept of prison is very much accessible to someone’s senses. Perhaps at some point your father dragged you physically to where you needed to be but you held on with your fingers to a door frame? That is effectively the process of being imprisoned, except the parental state has a stick and pepper spray, and you are not being taken anywhere that is good for you. Most people just submit.

Land – immediately available to the senses. You can look at it, stand on it etc.

Value – over a course of time this is available to the senses. Patterns of commerce have very visible effects on buildings. People research and undertake transactions for land (and all manner of other things) and experience the consequences. Value is subjective in that it applies objectively within the the life of the person making a value judgement, but such valuations are generally objective since they relate to, often very indirectly, to something that is experienced.

I note there is a reliance on received wisdom in showing the link to sense-data in these concepts, this shows the division of cognitive labour in action, and this is something Rand endorsed epistemological although she did also endorsed independence of mind in her ethics. I think Popper has interesting things to say about the necessary and potentially infinite chain of verifications that I accept we all engage in to ensure received wisdom is wise to accept. Rand simply makes observations about where that chain should lead.


If libertarianism was a useless or invalid concept then it would have nothing to say about whether a land value tax is decent policy or not. I would say that this is a little unclear at the moment. Bleeding Heart Libertarians and Left Libertarians endorse it, others do not. However, these people are confused, as I shall show, and many other libertarians (the largest group I believe) would not endorse a land value tax, and nor should they. It is fairly obvious why, and that is because of if you break apart the concept of land value tax, you can access the process of taxation, and you can criticise that and make reference to a shared understanding of what the process of taxation involves. Do we find that taxation is violent? Yes we do. America fought Britain to escape it. Grannies have been imprisoned for it. Watt Tyler led a revolt over it. If you don’t pay it then a bailiff will fight you to enact it, or a judge will sentence you to a metal cage to enforce it. Escaping that cage by clinging to the dock of the court like a child to a door frame will get you nothing but the deliberate infliction of pain that you cannot endure. That is violence. Land value tax is a violent policy, and the definition of libertarianism that I identified above excludes it.

As such we can see that libertarianism is a concept that applies a process of measurement to actual or proposed actions and filters those actions according to that measurement. Some actions are permitted within the definition, others are excluded. We can arrive at the referents of the concept: a set of favoured actions and of favoured policies that are non-aggressive. There is a lot of indirection, but the senses are involved and this is a valid concept. The fact that some people label themselves libertarians and yet favour a violent policy is a measure of their confusion, but libertarianism does not float on nothing and nor is it an empty concept that has no meaning.


  1. Unlike “taxes” on capital formation, LVT directly relates to the benefit the payer receives. You choose your own liabilities by choosing where you live. A person with an income of hundreds of millions could pay zero to the State in taxes if they so wished. Sounds very libertarian to me.

    Furthermore, any freeholder who doesn’t want to share land rent(as compensation for exclusive rights to physical land) shouldn’t be coerced. However, the surrounding community would then withdraw that freeholders privileges to protection, and access to community land.

    Which, is non-aggressive and free choice. Again, sounds very libertarian to me.

    People who argue against LVT are always arguing in favour of protected State privileges. Not very libertarian if you ask me.



  2. Lvt is not a tax, for it is repeating.

    Tax the buying of land, then it is a tax. Come back next year, then one is renting it.

    Call what some label lvt what it really is, land sequestration and rent-back.

    Renting from a monopoly provider? What could possibly go wrong…



  3. The fact is that EVERY form of taxation is the outcome of extortion (the threat of violence or force) or actual force.

    As Tim says, LVT amounts to a rent. Of course there’s nothing new in that — the property taxes that we pay also amount to rent.

    Then there’s this horrid idea of taxing on the basis of wealth (not income; wealth). In other words, each year I come to your house and take x% of whatever you’ve got, whether you’ve earned it recently or you inherited it or you got it as a gift from your cat. Unless you’re constantly replenishing your store of wealth (via some sort of labor, or investing), it diminishes yearly.

    Suggest you get another cat.



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