Video: Martin Keegan on the Evolution of Private Cooperation

How and why do we cooperate? Often we cooperate because the government forces us to. We also cooperate to make a profit. But what about cooperating to do things that are we think are just, you know, good? Who decides what are or are not worthy cooperative purposes? Does the government monopolise, or insist on overseeing, all such decisions and commitments? Or are citizens able to make such decisions for themselves, by forming cooperative groups of their own devising, for their own purposes. Martin Keegan concentrated in his talk on that latter sort of cooperation, cooperation that is not-for-profit. And he particularly focussed in on the institution of the Trust.

Crucial to the development of the Trust, in the Anglo-American legal systems, is that you didn’t and don’t need the particular permission of the government to form a particular Trust.

Nevertheless, once a Trust is formed, the courts provide legal remedies if any of the agreements made between the contracting parties get broken.

By means of a Trust, a group of people place resources in the hands of Trustees, who guard and spend those resources, even after the deaths of all the original benefactors, or Trustees.

The Trust, then, is the means by which Civil Society, the society of what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons”, becomes a reality. All manner of cooperative enterprises, which those directly involved consider to be a good thing and of potential or actual benefit to the wider public, but which many or even most others might consider of doubtful value or even harmful, are thus able to get started and to thrive, for decades and even for centuries. Minority religious institutions, controversial educational enterprises, obscure intellectual or scientific bodies, artistic ventures, charitable foundations, schemes to build what we now call infrastructure, can all get started and stay active indefinitely. Opposition political parties can form. Libertarian Home can exist not just as a bunch of people, but as a bunch of people with heritable assets, devoted to a particular purpose. Keegan himself offered this example.

How could a government explicitly agree to that happening? Answer: in a free society, it shouldn’t and doesn’t have to.

Keegan found time also to talk also about the Islamic equivalent of the Trust, namely the “Waqf”, an institution by means of which private citizens in the Islamic world could do publicly valuable things, like build fountains. But the Waqf was rather inflexible. The purpose of each Waqf was highly specific, and it was bad at adapting to changed circumstances.

Trusts have their origins in tax avoidance, and are now under attack because they are still regarded as being predominantly for that purpose. And the accusation is sort of true. A world in which Trusts flourish is a world in which individuals decide what is to happen to their wealth, and not just governments.

Also, many hitherto independent institutions are now being sucked towards the public sector. They are ceasing to be vehicles for shared but not universally accepted purposes. Whereas Continental law was very slow in allowing Civil Society to emerge, the Anglo-Saxon world is in danger of stifling it, by moving, legally, in the opposite direction, towards a more Continental system.

This talk was a deceptively down-beat affair, strong on seriousness but lacking laughs and certainly lacking histrionics. No attempt was made by Keegan to get his audience, either on the night or on the internet, worked up. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of a subject like this one, merely because the guy doing the talking is keeping the emotional temperature strictly at lukewarm.

Unlike many Libertarian Home speakers, Keegan confined himself almost exactly to his pre-suggested time. This video is well worth the relatively short time, just over twenty minutes, needed to watch it.